Drama as communication

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Last year, I was having trouble fielding a constant stream of questions about genetics from Year 11 pupils intrigued by press reports of possible cloned babies, growing spare human body parts, and eternal youth. So when I announced the Centrestage project I faced a very enthusiastic response.

Centrestage, a national initiative set up by the Wellcome Trust for Science Year in 2001, aimed to encourage the use of drama as a tool for communicating moral and ethical issues in biomedical science.

First up was a workshop day in Glasgow, one of 10 regional science workshops across the UK, designed to motivate pupils and give them ideas.

The eight pupils got stuck into debate about difficult ethical issues, sending emails to research scientists who might give support.

Some pupils had seen a TVdrama about embryo selection and were keen to develop this idea into a performance. Our drama and music teachers got involved in rehearsals for a 20-minute performance for the Centrestage regional final. The drama concerned a farming family whose youngest child was suffering from a blood disorder and needed a bone-marrow transplant. No suitable donor could be found and so the parents turned to embryo selection to have a child who would be a genetic match and suitable donor. The subsequent emotional stress and financial burden caused the break-up of their marriage.

The pupils' excellent performance depended on a thorough understanding of their roles: they went on to be invited to the Centrestage Project's National Festival of Science Drama at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Soon after we began rehearsals, a similar real-life drama hit the headlines with the story of the Hashmi family from Leeds. The couple in our drama were in turmoil over whether or not to use embryo-selection techniques. A number of eggs taken from the mother were fertilised with the father's sperm in a laboratory, then screened to see if any were the required genetic match. If so, the embryo would be implanted in the mother's womb and "unsuitable" embryos discarded. Later, the new child would be able to donate bone marrow to save its sibling's life.

The project has had a positive impact on the school (we were able to perform it during our Ofsted week). All pupils had a chance to see it and the amount of discussion that followed threatened the peace in many a lesson that day, particularly in our PSHE programme. Pupils learned to voice opinions and feelings and their increased awareness of the impact of genetics on their lives helped them with revision work. Year 11 students achieved a much higher level of attainment in their genetics test than in other areas of the curriculum.

The Wellcome Trust funded all our travel and accommodation in London. We were visited by a drama specialist and had email contact with science specialists.

Stephen Dewey is key stage 3 co-ordinator at St Bernard's High School, Barrow-in-Furness The Wellcome Trust is planning a new initiative to increase the capacity, diversity and availability of science-related drama work. Email: Simon Parry, s.parry@wellcome.ac.uk www.wellcome.ac.ukenscscontacts.html

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