Crash course in molecular mayhem for bright sparks

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
A summer course can work wonders. Kate Graham goes to Great Yarmouth to find out how

At Lynn Grove High School, Great Yarmouth, there's a scene to strike fear into the heart of the most hardened caretaker; a school hall filled with smashed eggs, wallpaper paste, dripping chemicals and overexcited pupils.

But these teenagers aren't tearaways, they're budding scientists who have given up summer "kickabouts" for a crash course in molecular biology.

Welcome to Marvellous Molecules, a day of activities organised by visiting scientist Peter Grey-Reid whose use of "info-tainment" is more "gunge-tank" than science lab. Using his wacky persona, Professor Polypeptide, may be receiving a few withering glances from his charges - "Maybe someone should tell him his tie is rubbish?' whispers one girl to her neighbour - but his activities have them far too busy for more than a cursory fashion analysis.

Quickly galvanising his group into action, Peter gets stuck into making a gooey cell (see right) before asking the pupils to enact the actions of a polypeptide.

Watching from the sidelines, Liz Drake from the Education Action Zone is delighted with the day. "Peter taps into what we call 'Burnt Biro syndrome.' Kids want to know what happened when you shove a Biro in a Bunsen burner, and teachers should work with that curiosity". Liz booked Peter after seeing him at work in a nearby middle school. "The kids were absolutely thrilled with what they were doing."

Targeting the most able pupils was a crucial decision. "If we always focus attention of the kids who are struggling, you can miss out on the well-behaved, intelligent children who don't cause you any problems," head of science Dave Parks explains.

Thirteen-year-old Larisa Worboys from nearby Oriel High School agrees. "We have boys in our class that always disturb us, but we learn so much better with that disruption taken away."

But the day extends far beyond stretching the most able. With one eye on the possible introduction of vocational science GCSE, this is a perfect opportunity to pilot ideas.

Back in the hall, pupils are weaving giant spider's webs from string, and Peter is adamant that name-checking Spiderman to get pupils thinking about DNA is as legitimate a method as textbooks and note taking. "Science information can be just as entertaining as fiction or drama. The fact is that scientific discoveries such as the double helix are incredibly dramatic."

It is this sense of drama that Peter wants to re-inject into science.

"Teenagers just think they have got to be cool about everything," he says.

"I dare them to get enthusiastic, passionate and committed."

Peter's approach also goes a long way to address the difference in teaching styles between key stages 2 and 3 - a leap that can leave many pupils behind: "I believe the adage, 'If I hear something I forget, if I do something I understand,'" he says. His confidence is well founded, for previous science weeks at Lynn Grove have translated into higher grades.

"Our various science schools have raised results. The pupils that took part in the Easter science school were twice as likely to attain a higher level in their exams," says Dave Parks. Inviting new voices and using unconventional methods has succeeded in sparking interest in what some teenagers perceive as a dry subject. Dave Parks says: "I'm not worried if they don't know the names of the proteins, because they don't need to know until they get to Year 10 or 11. I'd just like them to think it's amazing how complicated DNA is, and to go away with the sense of awe and wonder."

But 13-year-old Kailey Hunn has a much more practical goal in mind: "I definitely want to be a forensic or an evidence collector. Once I've done this course I'll know more."


Prof Polypeptide's cell recipe

Plastic self-sealing bag Dates Wallpaper paste Raisins Glittery stars String

1. Explain: a cell is the smallest unit of independent life. Some tiny living things (such as bacteria) are composed of one cell, but very complex organisms such as the human body are composed of billions of cells.

2. Hold up the plastic bag. Explain that the cell has a membrane. The membrane surrounds the cell, isolating it from the outside. But it has tiny holes, and regulates the in-and-out flow of dissolved materials, allowing certain chemicals in (eg, food) or out (eg, waste).

3. Hold up the date. In bacteria the DNA is spread out in the cytoplasm like combed out hair. It may also be in loops. But plant and animal cells have special compartments. This date represents the nucleus. It tells the cell what to do. In the nucleus there is the tightly coiled DNA packed with instructions. Drop the date in the bag.

4. Let dollops of the paste fall off your fingers. This goo is the cytoplasm; it makes up most of the cell like a gooey filling. Make it from wallpaper paste. The cytoplasm has a vital function: the sugars, amino acids and proteins that carry out the chemical reactions of the cell are dissolved or suspended within the cytoplasm.

5. Drop some raisins into the bag. Every cell has energy in it. Again animal cells have their own special compartments to make high energy molecules. Plant cells make all their energy in solar cells containing a green pigment called chlorophyll.

6. Drop some glittery stars in the bag and explain that they represent proteins or protein production platforms. Proteins are made up of amino acids in a special sequence encoded by the DNA and are the key molecules in keeping a cell alive.

7. Drop in some lengths of string - some strands may be knotted together.

Research shows that even the cytoplasm is not just a gooey soup but has a fibrous skeleton called the cyto-skeleton (cyto is a prefix meaning "cell") spread through it. They resemble optical fibres so they may have their own cell-net and carry text messages around the cell.

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