Pond life spawns an interest in science

13th September 1996 at 01:00
Why do elephants have ears? Nottingham's Young Saplings are sure to know. Clare Jenkins joins their field trip.

The Wellington-clad children carrying butterfly nets look like any other school party on a nature trail, as they troop through the Nottingham park. But, with one exception, the adults with them aren't their teachers. They are scientists from Nottingham University. And the exercise is part of the university's Young Saplings Project with primary schoolchildren. Its aim: to make science fun.

At the pond, the children split into groups to start "dipping". Each group includes a scientist and research student. The latter - like Dr George Behnke - point out various kinds of wildlife. "Everything that moves and crawls, pick it up," he says.

After putting their "finds" into buckets, they return to the university's Life Science Department to analyse them. Among the afternoon's discoveries: great diving beetles, damsel flies, dragonfly lava, ram's horn snails, may fly lava, tadpoles, beetles and blood worms. "See the gills?" says George Behnke as a fascinated child peers down a microscope. "That's how they breathe. Like our lungs."

The project is the brainchild of university technician Jill Brown. It sprang out of the department's fund-raising activities, which concen-trated initially on buying much-needed science books and equipment.

"We didn't want to go to a school where all the parents were clued up," she says. "We wanted to go to one with difficulties." Their choice, Whitegate School, is in the Clifton area of the city.

Having raised Pounds 600, Jill then persuaded her colleagues to devise extra-curricular activities. The result is the monthly after-hours Young Saplings Science Club. The seven to 11-year-olds were asked what they most wanted to learn. These are some of their questions: "Why was dinosaurs exstinked? Wot did kill the dineser? Why do elephants have trunks? What is the most reariest [rarest] animal in the world?" Most difficult of all, "Why do we die?" "We'll have to give that one some thought," she laughs.

The academics and technicians then organised in-school workshops on the most popular topics: dinosaurs, rain forests, bugs and the beginnings of life, birds and their beaks.

They have proved so successful that the next stage was to introduce the children to the tutors' world and to give them an insight into university life. Hence the pond dipping. "By getting to them at this level," says Jill, "we're hoping to get them interested in science as something more than the curriculum. Something they can be interested in later on. Science does not seem to be really encouraged in schools, especially in young girls. So if you start at an early age, you don't know what seeds you might sow."

According to teacher Penny Sinclair, although parts of the exercise do fit into the national curriculum, that's not the point. "It's to get them to realise that science is exciting and stimulating. Because the curriculum is quite broad now, we can't always go into great depth. We might not get round to beaks, for example!" There is no doubting the children's enthusiasm. Twice as many wanted to attend the pond dipping session as could be accommodated, and the same is true of the science club. "It's the only after-hours club where we have to turn children away," says Penny. "We've got a lot of sporting clubs in the school, but this is the only one with 60 members who actually attend. There are normally just 10 or 12."

"It's fun and I learn new things," says 10-year-old Liam, busily collecting sticklebacks and snails. "I've just found a may fly nymph and some cladophera. " For Natalie, also 10, learning about microbes has been a highlight. "I didn't know what they were before. They're tiny things that are in everything. My sister hates science but I like it." "Me, too," says Nicholas. "I liked the beaks best. Using nutcrackers to see how birds use their beaks."

So what's in it for the university? According to Professsor Derek Wakelim, payback is threefold: "The motivation of helping a disadvantaged school, to make the university less removed from the community and to give science a better profile."

And Jill Brown recalls: "One child said to me, are you a scientist? I said in reply, what do you think a scientist looks like? If only one child becomes a scientist because of this project, it will be worth it."

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