Lab experiment proves a catalyst;Science in the curriculum;Edinburgh International Science Festival

5th March 1999 at 00:00
Biotechnology is under a cloud at present, owing to the combined activities of unscrupulous multi-nationals and ill-informed newspaper editors. But there is no doubt that its techniques are set to revolutionise the world. Whether it ends badly or not depends on the knowledge and understanding we give to our schoolchildren.

One scenario is a countryside with endless fields of single crops, depleted insect populations and no songbirds. Then there is the potential to eradicate diseases, extend human life and preserve endangered species.

Before any of these possibilities unfold, biotechnology will create more job opportunities than all other sciences. All of which are excellent reasons for providing our children with a solid grounding in the subject and a good understanding of it.

Unfortunately, teachers are labouring under the twin burdens of inadequate equipment and a curriculum bursting at the seams.

"Sure I could teach biotechnology in my school lab at Dumbarton Academy," says head of biology Irvine Johnston, "provided you gave me more time and pound;5,000-pound;6,000 to buy the instruments."

Which is why he and biology teachers throughout Dunbartonshire and beyond are taking their pupils to Strathclyde University, where a laboratory has been equipped to professional standards, letting them perform serious experiments.

The facility is modelled on CityLab at Boston University, Massachusetts, and is the brainchild of Dunbartonshire Enterprise.

"I went over to Boston a few years back and was very impressed," says Susie Rintoul. "So we approached Strathclyde University with a proposal to build the biotechnology lab on their Jordanhill campus. We've had 3,000 kids coming through it since and we've trained every biology teacher in Dunbartonshire."

Claire McCue, a Dumbarton Academy fifth-former, says: "We used the same procedures forensic scientists use to identify a criminal from DNA. So we were given the criminal's DNA and three other samples and we tried to find out which one matched up. Quite a lot of skill was needed to pour and dilute the gel, add the enzymes and use the micropipettes. I liked the environment in the lab."

Her teacher, Irvine Johnston, says: "The lab is superb. You can take up to 20 kids for a full day and they all get to use sophisticated equipment. The staff at the lab are very professional. I take my Higher biology and human biology classes there every year. We fund the visits with a science education partnership grant from the Royal Society which Kathleen Oates, the adviser at West Dunbartonshire, told us about."

The lab is aimed primarily but not exclusively at S5 and S6. Kathleen Oates says: "Boston University gave us clearance to use their materials. I selected a group of teachers to look at them and decide which parts would fit the Scottish curriculum. So the modules on offer at the lab are those the teachers wanted."

The protocols were adapted by the technician, Graeme MacVicar, who produced the DNA and found the best enzymes to use. "We also got primary and secondary teachers to look at the 5-14 curriculum and develop teachers' packs for Primary 6-7 and Secondary 1-2."

To arrange school visits to the Biotechnology Lab, telephone 0141 950 3603. For training courses contact Kathleen Oates, tel: 01389 737 332.

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