An owl has become a permanent fixture in Cloan Nursery's hallway. The soft toy, nicknamed Caley Bear, sports the crest of Glasgow Caledonian University. As he peers at the Drumchapel pre-schoolers who pass him every day, he reminds them of the memorable time they went to university and delved into owl poo.
"But what do you do with them?" It is a question Eleanor Wilson has been asked countless times, when people learn that she organises Glasgow Caledonian University workshops for nursery children. Ms Wilson manages the award-winning Caledonian Club, which introduces pupils and their families to university life, but it is the fusion of pre-school and academia that intrigues.
The Caledonian Club was the brainchild of university principal and vice- chancellor Pamela Gillies, who wanted to raise ambitions in communities such as Drumchapel and Castlemilk. Early intervention was considered crucial; university visits are all very well for teenagers but, the rationale went, attitudes have often hardened by that age.
Since a feasibility study in 2007-08, five Glasgow school clusters have become involved with the Caledonian Club's four permanent staff and 70 paid student mentors, including a nursery in each area.
The involvement of such young children makes perfect sense, believes Anne O'Grady, headteacher at Cloan Nursery. It is almost unheard of for parents at her school to have set foot inside, let alone studied at, a university. For precisely that reason, she believes universities should be working with nurseries: "The opportunities in the early years are limitless, if you can engage families."
Nursery children typically spend a half-day at the university and, on a different date, university comes to the nursery. Children meet a sleeping girl on campus called Molly, played by a freelance drama worker. It is Molly's first day at school and her dad's first day at university - the difficulty of transition is an issue that Caledonian Club staff are acutely aware of - and the children help to wake her. Molly asks why they are here, and becomes their friend at Caley University.
This relationship established, children move around five work stations, spending about 10 minutes at each. They use magnifying glasses to examine owl pellets, packed with scrunched up mouse bones. Ms Wilson points out that the pre-schoolers have not been "grossed out", as older people often would be.
Elsewhere, they use Duplo bricks to try building a tower higher than Caley Owl (renamed Caley Bear at Cloan Nursery). Computing is introduced through a dance mat, on which the children pull moves corresponding to on-screen numbers. The university's fashion expertise helps in the design of socks, and, covering health and nutrition, the children help to pack Molly's lunch, a task followed up when dietetics students visit the nursery.
Cloan Nursery has pioneered a "graduation ceremony", attended by 42 children and 81 parents, complete with the usual ceremonial garb and pomp, thanks to a Robertson Trust grant that bolstered core university funding. The other four nurseries have not yet had graduation ceremonies, but Ms Wilson hopes this will change in future years.
Mrs O'Grady thinks the club works because staff and mentors have genuine commitment to their cause, and are never judgmental. If their work had been tokenistic or patronising, she says, families would have switched off immediately.
"The children love it," she says. "They know a university is a place where they can go to learn when they grow up. I don't think any of the children wouldn't see that as an option - because no one's told them that it isn't, so far."
There has been an impact, too, on parents: the mother of a Cloan Nursery girl gained the impetus to leave her job in a sports shop and start a childcare course at the university.
At St Bartholomew's Primary in Castlemilk, P5s have made an animated film about the legend of Romulus and Remus with help from the Caledonian Club, adding another dimension to annual work on the Romans. They have befriended students and received their own matriculation cards, which, headteacher Jane Saunders stresses, has a far more impact than teachers explaining why university is important.
Last year, when Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson visited his home city, a group of St Bartholomew's pupils delivered a presentation in which they explained to him that the Caledonian Club had made them want to go to university.
This year, St Bartholomew's is extending its involvement to P2s, some of whom already know the Caledonian Club through work at the adjoining Machrie Nursery. Several years from now, they will continue their involvement at St Margaret Mary's Secondary. Professor Gillies's plan is that, over 15 to 30 years, the club will "instigate social change".
Already, strong bonds are forming with schools. Mandy Smith, a former All Saints Secondary pupil, became the first person in her family to go to university. One of her first instincts was to tell Caledonian Club staff about her success, after working with them for two years. This year, the business studies student has become a student mentor.
Ms Wilson hopes the club will become "part of the fabric of schools". There are no plans for rapid expansion - although work in Tower Hamlets schools is being planned as the university's new London base gets going - as staff would prefer "to go an inch wide and a mile deep".
- Original headline: Caledonian Club shows nursery children what university can offer