Science - The hard graft of a 'sexy' subject

13th September 2013 at 01:00
Nuffield placements offer students real-life research experience

"Science is sexy now," TESS overheard one visitor observe at an event run by the Nuffield Foundation charity in Edinburgh.

But although the subject's popularity is increasing thanks to the likes of television science evangelist Brian Cox, it can hardly be described as glamorous. It may take years, even decades, of graft to make a small and esoteric discovery. So what is the best way to teach young people what science is really like?

The Nuffield Foundation believes it knows: persuade school students to spend up to six weeks of their summer holidays in a working lab or research institute. The end result this year was a display of 100 projects in the grand surroundings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh last week.

Teenagers from across Scotland described a wide range of projects: how to help stroke survivors; the usefulness of animal research; the effects of a traditional Scottish breakfast; how to help athletes reach peak performance; how hand hygiene products affect the skin; the impact of fruit juice on people with diabetes; restoring so-called "Frankensoils"; and creating warship guns, among many others.

"The more practical science, the better," said Eleanor Glasse, who teaches biology at McLaren High in Stirling.

One of her students, 17-year-old Daniel Speirs, spent his summer at the University of Glasgow's Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, investigating ways to improve the success of coronary artery bypass grafting. Like many other students at the exhibition, he emerged with a clearer idea of what he wanted to do in life - in his case, medicine.

"I didn't know anyone who'd done medicine other than my GP before this," he said. "Now, working with people all day, every day at the university, I've got to know their processes."

Perth Academy's Linnet McGregor, 17, went to the University of Abertay Dundee to explore an aspect of bacterial evolution. "It's been a lot different to experiments in school," she said. "You can't just go to the teacher if it goes wrong - it's up to you to fix it."

Azhar Khan, of Braidhurst High, Motherwell, used to think of science as "facts with known answers - you just had to understand the facts, digest information given at school and apply it". Now, after a spell at the University of Glasgow's Institute of Molecular Cell and Systems Biology, he saw science as "a way of thinking and understanding - it's about creativity and coming up with new ideas", he said.

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