Down to earth learning

27th July 2007 at 01:00
An innovative summer programme at Strathclyde University encourages younger pupils to consider higher education

aliens have landed on planet Earth. A body believed to be that of an extra terrestrial was discovered in a field in Scotland, near the crash site of an unidentified aircraft. Scientists are working round the clock to establish whether the creatures are a threat to life on Earth.

This scenario is not just the stuff of sci-fi pulp, but one of several faced by around 1,000 pupils on an innovative summer programme at Strathclyde University. Rather than helping older pupils get the grades to go to university, Summer Academy @ Strathclyde aims to catch younger pupils as they prepare to enter their fourth year, before they lose an interest in learning.

The academy has had an impressive impact since its launch in 1999. Participants tend to do better in exams than previously anticipated, with results above the national averages.

The eight-week academy with a new cohort every two weeks is aimed at young people with the potential to do well academically but who might not otherwise consider higher education. Pupils are drawn from about 130 schools in the west and south-west of Scotland.

It works on the principle of "challenge learning", a concept developed by the Innovative Routes to Learning Team at the university. This sees young people participating in a wide variety of energetic tasks and learning new skills, almost unawares.

The scientists in the Alien Invasion challenge, for example, are asked to make "alien slime" and compare this to samples found at the crash site; while delighting at the gooey mess they have created, they are also building their science skills. Other challenges could see pupils forming political parties aimed at young people (Get the Party Started) or producing eye-catching packaging for fruit (Futuristic Fruit).

Longer "mega-challenges", which last for more than two days, may challenge participants to put on a fashion show, produce a magazine or work on a French version of the TV programme Can't Cook, Won't Cook. The pupils also take part in a Highland Games, including a colourful parade, and a graduation ceremony organised by some of the young people.

The actitivities are overseen by mentors in their late teens and early 20s, several of whom attended the academy as pupils themselves. Their youth helps them relate to the young people better.

Many aspects of the academy cross-curricular work, flexibility, active learning, social skills, older people mentoring younger people have become part of a mainstream debate on the future of Scottish education.

"Its ethos is absolutely at the heart of A Curriculum for Excel-lence," says Christine Percival, the director. "Summer academy has all the pre-requisites of the new curriculum already in place."

She believes the academy model could be replicated in schools. "Not every day in a secondary has to be the same. It would be good to close down for half-a day, or a full day, every term and get all the pupils mixing in challenges."

Shannon McMeeking, 14, of St Andrew's Secondary in Glasgow, was not hugely enthusiastic about giving up part of her summer, but soon changed her mind. "I thought there would be a bit of writing, but it's actually quite fun," she said. "I didn't think it would be about finding out how to kill aliens or things like that."

Shannon had never been interested in chemistry or biology before coming to the academy, but these are subjects she would now consider taking.

Mentor Ali Sholi, a PE teacher about to enter his probationary year, says: "There's a lot of group work this is not a quiet environment. We're like big brothers and sisters, so there's a lot more scope for discussion and for the kids to be more open."

The challenges are not restricted to the summer academy as staff work with 9,000 young people in schools at other times of the year, address varied issues such as the transition from primary to secondary school, study skills, and the Neet (not in education, employment or training) group.

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