Falkirk sets out to catch scientists

5th March 2004 at 00:00
A wide-ranging scheme of masterclasses and workshops aims to promote scientific careers and, in the long-term, help regenerate the Falkirk area.

Karen Shead reports

Spending time after school dissecting fish and scrutinising their kidneys is not everybody's idea of fun but a group of S4 students from Falkirk schools were happily getting on with the task at an evening masterclass entitled Fishy Business.

The class was one of a series of innovative sessions at Falkirk College that aimed to encourage pupils to study science beyond the compulsory stage at school.

Recognising the decline in school-leavers choosing science and technology careers, Falkirk Council, BP and Scottish Enterprise Forth Valley set up the Schools into Technology educational programme. It is part of their wider regeneration programme entitled My Future and Falkirk's, which was launched in December 2002. The 10-year plan aims to transform Falkirk and its surrounding area into a thriving, diverse modern economy that attracts businesses and visitors and provides jobs for local people.

There are four strands to the wider programme. Schools into Technology aims to address the shortfall of scientists and engineers and has three parts to it, explains Neil Weir, a government and public affairs adviser for BP.

"There are the masterclasses, the Scottish Science and Technology Network and the Science, Education and Technology Fair."

The SET Fair, on Monday at Grangemouth Stadium, will offer pupils across Falkirk and Linlithgow the chance to take part in science-related workshops.

The Scottish Science and Technology Network links pupils aged five to 18 and their teachers with mentors from science and technology organisations and provides access to resources and expertise on an interactive website.

BP, Careers Scotland and Falkirk Council have invested pound;300,000 in the education project, which will run initially for three years. The initiative is in full swing in the Forth Valley and Grampian, where it ran as a pilot for two years, and is now being rolled out nationally.

The masterclasses are the newest element. Aimed at S2 and S4 pupils, they target those who are about to choose their Standard grade or Higher subjects.

"The classes are being held just before students make their choices, so we are targeting a specific population," says Mr Weir. "We are trying to encourage the ones who are good enough to take science.

"We work with the eight high schools in the area. Each week four schools bring five pupils, so 240 pupils are involved over the course of 12 weeks."

Six workshops for S2 pupils were held at Falkirk College in January and February, covering recycling, disease transfer and animal testing. The first one for the S4 pupils, on a biotechnology theme, was held last week.

Alexandra Adams, a professor at Stirling University and chief executive director of the biotechnology firm Aquatic Diagnostics, opened the session.

She explained how she went from being a student to where she is today and talked about highlights of her job.

"Meeting people from all over the world is part of what I do," she says. "I have travelled all over the world - Thailand, Chile, Canada, wherever - to do workshops with people who are working on fish. It's a varied job, it's a very good job and I enjoy it very much."

Andrea Gellan, a senior lecturer in chemistry and biochemistry at Falkirk College, and Mr Weir, also introduce themselves before putting on their white coats and going through to the lab to start the session in which pupils have to investigate why a farmer's fish are dying.

An hour and a half later. the fish have been dissected, the tests carried out and a diagnosis made.

The pupils' appetite for science appears to have been successfully whetted.

Fifteen-year-old Jill Allan, of Bo'ness Academy, came to the session because she was thinking about taking Higher biology. "It was good fun, I enjoyed it," she says.

Martin Bell, also 15, of Braes High, says: "I came along as I thought we would get to do something practical and maybe something different to what we do in the classroom. I have already decided that I am taking sciences, and this has made me pleased with my decision."

The teachers were equally supportive. Ken McLaughlin, principal teacher of biology at Bo'ness Academy, went to one of the S2 classes while a colleague went to the S4 one. "We were very impressed with the organisation and the response of the pupils who were all very positive," he says.

"Some of the S2s who are in the process of choosing their subjects for S3 said they would either choose a different science or consider more than one.

"For some of the more creative subjects, like music and art, there has always been something outwith school hours, but for subjects in the academic area we rest on our laurels a bit.

"There's more to science than simply what is done in the class," he says.

"This is very valuable."

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