The science of success

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Eleanor Caldwell reports on a project which brings young scientists into the classroom at no expense to the school

Feelings were running high in Wendy McLean's fourth-year biology class at Wallace High school in Stirling, as pupils confronted contemporary ethical issues like the transplantation of pig organs, genetically modified foods and "designer babies".

The debate was chaired by the school's own temporary researcher in residence, PhD student Lindsay McGuinness. A former pupil of Wallace, McGuinness is now doing postgraduate research in neuroendocrinology at University College, London.

The researcher in residence biosciences project, first introduced in 1997, is managed by the Association for Science Education INSET Services and funded jointly by the Wellcome Trust and three bioscience research councils. During a four-day period of residence, at no expense to schools, young research scientists aim to bring their specialist areas to science classes and inject new life into their image of the subject.

Having chosen to return to her old school in Stirling, McGuinness is the first researcher to work on the project in Scotland. After a busy week's timetable which included classes on basic genetic engineering (S4 and Higher), brain and memory (S2) and human chromosomal mutations (S4), she leads two practical sessions. The ethical debate in S4 presents a new challenge to pupils and science teachers for whom discussion is not normally included in class. Presented with case studies, it takes no time for pupils to express strongly held opinions. Divided almost in half, feelings on the hypothetical transplant of a pig's heart to a dying child are passionately and articulately expressed: "It would be inhumane not to let her live beyond her 10th birthday."

"But it was meant to be... With a pig's heart she wouldn't lead a normal life anyway... the press would be onto the story."

McGuinness moves between the two groups, offering scientific facts to support both arguments.

On the issue of GM foods the class is again quite evenly divided, expressing support on the strength of aid for Third World malnutrition and counter-arguments based on the lack of knowledge about possible dangers. "We can't read the ingredients of a tomato," comments one pupil.

The debate continues heatedly as the bell rings and pupils leave the lab. Teacher Wendy McLean is both surprised and delighted at the pupils' enthusiasm commenting that they were clearly motivated by having a "lively young woman" to relate to.

The S5 class next period is being given the unusual opportunity of extracting DNA from animal and plant tissue which, as principal teacher, Katherine Yeomans explains, is frequently only conducted in university lab sessions.

After listening to Lindsay's explanation of the experiment, pupils help themselves to measured amounts of either chopped liver or onions, provided, she says, "after a quick visit to Tesco".

Pupils confidently conduct the experiment with quiet excitement, and regular encouragement from McGuinness, who commends one group: "There's loads of nice cells in there."

In the course of the experiment, as excitement mounts about production of their own DNA, pupils tune in to my conversation with McGuinness about her own research. She describes her study of human chromosomal mutations, working, for example, with children with restricted growth. On practical laboratory work she explains that she conducts transgenic experiments, implanting human genes into the fertilised embryo of rats as a means towards prevention of conditions such as diabetes and Down's syndrome. Pupils are clearly fascinated. Watching their own DNA appear in test tubes they talk about their future plans.

Carolyn Rutherford says McGuinness has given her a whole new area of thought about her ambition to become a midwife. Prospective medical student Brian Turner agrees and is full of praise for his lab partner, Kirsten Nee's impressive explanation of the possible medical uses of DNA. Bryony Wilson is delighted to take her sample home to show her mum, also studying biology.

Talking of her return to Wallace High, McGuinness explains that her experience at school had encouraged her to study biology. "I saw this as a great chance to put something back into the school," she says. The period of residence has made her appreciate for the first time, the day to day workload of teachers which, as a pupil, she admits she had always taken for granted.

Katherine Yeomans is delighted with the project. "It provided a fantastic opportunity for our pupils to learn about the applications of genetic engineering first-hand from a scientist who does it every day," she says.

Headteacher Bill Brodie, himself a biology specialist, is equally enthusiastic, and particularly pleased Lindsay McGuinness decided to return to Wallace High.

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