The study of UFOs is proving a boon to aspiring boffins attending WEA classes in the North, writes Ian Nash
Little green men may not be everyday figures on the horizon, but the question of whether there is life on other planets is the theme for a scheme to encourage more interest in science.
The Workers' Educational Association is tapping into the wackier extremes of Ufology and science-fiction to attract adults back into learning.
The association wants to make science more accessible and inject more human interest in a manner already adopted with school pupils by the Association for Science Education and British Association for the Advancement of Science.
But the scheme does not only focus on the bizarre. There is a deeper, serious aim: to promote greater scientific literacy and public understanding.
A recent Mori poll showed that most adults see Marie Curie and Albert Einstein as more inspiring than the Beckhams, but few feel that science is for them.
Annual surveys of the public's understanding of science by the National Science Museum have consistently shown that a high proportion of adults believe the sun goes round the earth, rather than the opposite.
The WEA in the North-east aims to raise an interest in sciences among adults and dispel such myths by posing controversial questions rooted in science and its uses. The awareness-raising scheme includes day schools that explore the life and death of stars and the origins of life in the universe, looking at the work of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (Seti) project and the cases for and against the existence of interplanetary aliens.
Bob Groves, a WEA tutor on Tyneside, said: "We want to engage people in thinking more about science and sometimes a wacky topic is a good doorway into examining the nature of serious scientific issues and debate.
"We're very interested in introducing science and its methodologies, but also considering the ethics and politics of science."
The programme builds on a highly successful network of 10-week environment and wildlife courses across the North-east which have been very successful in attracting second-chance and underachieving adults.
One in five adults on the course has no qualifications and most of the rest are below level 2 (GCSE-equivalent), yet the retention rate for the full 10 weeks is 98 per cent .
The environmental sciences focus on a range of subjects from seashores, forests and habitats shaped by peat bogs, hedgerows and dry-stone walls, and there is a considerable interest in the rich variety of bird life and migration patterns in the area.
A central aim of this work is to involve adults in conservation activities and help them to contribute to public debate about sustainable environments. Nigel Todd, the WEA's regional director for the North-east, said: "All of our courses in the sciences curriculum are determined by our voluntary members who meet to plan programmes in their local branches."
The WEA is extending its involvement in science in line with the emergence of Newcastle as Science City and the growing reputation of the Newcastle International Centre for Life. There will be new ways into higher education through links with the Open University and Sunderland university's centre for lifelong learning.
Mr Groves predicts that opportunities will continue to grow. He said:
"During this coming year, our members are expanding their programme with a series of fascinating taster courses arranged through React, an initiative to raise awareness of the importance of chemistry, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council."
Work is developed in partnership with the WEA, the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Association of Part-Time Tutors.
The React programme covers issues such as global warming, the chemistry of falling in love, drugs and sport, carbon storage, water resources, nuclear power and the chemistry of cosmetics.
In future, the initiative is likely to include genetics, super foods, weapons of mass destruction, laboratory tours and experiments, and a visit to a major chemical products company.