It was the end of a long school year and the start of the summer holidays, but instead of spending the first week of semi-decent weather outside, I was in the chemistry labs at the University of Manchester with a group of Year 10 pupils. Was I mad? Not at all - I was at one of the Chemistry Camps run by the Salters' Institute to give pupils a taste of chemistry at university.
Under the guidance of the university host and the lead teacher, four other teacher-mentors and I guided pupils through a series of practical activities, ably assisted by postgraduate demonstrators from the university.
The activities are designed to stretch pupils and give them experience of common lab techniques such as titration and re-crystallisation. They extend beyond the scope of what pupils will have covered at school, though some concepts will be familiar. The pupil booklet provides detailed instruction and background information on each practical challenge. The teacher leading each activity sets the scene and draws together the key points at the end of the session.
At the University of Manchester, the first evening of each camp (two camps are run back to back, one starting on Mondays, the other on Wednesdays) includes a Flash, Bang! lecture where the excitement of chemistry is translated to appeal to teenagers (and teachers). The following morning, after the lab session, there is a lecture on materials, with lots of samples, which gives an insight into the growing opportunities in chemistry.
Providing a taste of university life is more than just lab work - pupils stay in halls of residence, while social activities enable friendships to develop beyond simply sharing a fume hood.
I first went on camp three years ago - I wanted to know what it entailed before recommending it to my pupils and I have been back each year since. Seeing pupils develop competence and confidence in the lab makes giving up time in the holiday worthwhile. Watching as they are enchanted by the cold light and excited by the colours of transition metal complexes is what chemistry is about. Working in first-class labs, spending time with like-minded colleagues and enjoying the company of future scientists is the icing on the cake.
Sarah Longshaw is head of chemistry at Eaton Bank School, Cheshire. Salters' Chemistry Camps run each summer at universities across the UK and are open to Year 10s. More details are available at www.chemistrycamps.co.uk
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