Scientific breakthrough

17th September 2004 at 01:00
The Incredible Hulk, Homer Simpson and Star Trek feature in an exciting new strand of science activities at this year's show, writes Douglas Blane

Can anything be done to help the biscuit dunkers of the world?, wonders Len Fisher, a research scientist at Bristol University. "Could science, which has added that extra edge to the achievement of athletes and astronauts," asks Dr Fisher, "enhance biscuit performance?"

As every dedicated dunker will testify, dunked biscuits taste better. But one dunk in five ends in disaster, leaving the dunker with just a few crumbs in their hand and a soggy mess at the bottom of their cup.

The physics of biscuit structure combined with the analysis of experiments showed Dr Fisher that a small change in dunking technique could make a dramatic difference to results. (He recommends dipping the biscuit at a shallow angle so liquid is absorbed through just one side.) Dunking is one of several examples Dr Fisher will use during his talks at the SETT show to support his claim that the everyday world can be a gateway to fascinating science.

"Science is often seen as not relevant for the average student," he says, "but the subject impacts all our lives."

Similarly imaginative ways to present science to reluctant students can be found in a variety of contexts in the show's new science programme, which will be presented in the Glasgow Science Centre, a 10-minute walk from the main show at the SECC. Delegates can explore new ideas and best practice in science education with the help of modern technology, experienced astronauts, and fictional characters.

"We have developed a resource based on the Simpsons episode in which Homer eats himself to obesity," says Fiona Scott, manager of the TV Fiction in School Science project. "Another is inspired by a Star Trek episode."

The innovative project is designed to motivate and educate first and second year pupils. It is managed by the Institute for Science Education in Scotland and run by a team of teachers and scientists.

"The resources can be adapted to suit different television programmes," says Ms Scott. "We start with story lines that interest children, then use them to explore wider science ideas and issues."

"A surprisingly successful and varied resource, with investigations on javelin throwing, boulder rolling and the insulating properties of fur, has been developed around Cave Girl."

One of the most powerful illustrations of the potential of genes is the Incredible Hulk. "The Hulk is a genetically modified organism, a GMO," says John Richardson, director of the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre. "His cells are supposed to contain genetic sequences from a jellyfish.

"In our workshop we will be using a real GMO, a bacterium, containing the jellyfish gene which codes for the expression of a fluorescent green protein.

"Splicing this gene into viruses, plants, fruit flies and mammals has proved a very powerful research tool."

In lively sessions on both days of the SETT show, Mr Richardson and his colleagues will use glowing green bacteria to make molecular biology stunningly visible. There will be demonstrations and hands-on activities in colour chemistry and physics using light emitting diodes, lasers and "other up-to-date gizmos".

Subject boundaries will not be respected, says Mr Richardson. "Much of the really exciting science these days happens at the interfaces between what remain as completely separate sciences almost solely in schools and colleges."

Crossing boundaries, real or imagined, is what the Scottish Space Foundation's space school experience is all about, says Gordon McVie. "Too many young people are being turned off science and not enough good students are taking the subject."

Recognising the impact that astronauts have on the young, Careers Scotland has forged a productive partnership with NASA. More than 600 teenagers have participated in the Scottish Space School since its inception two years ago. Parties of S4 and S5 pupils visit Houston twice a year for days of science challenges and evenings of socialising with spacemen. Once a year, astronauts and engineers come to Scotland.

"Space camp in Houston and summer school at Strathclyde University are truly inspirational for the youngsters from all over Scotland who attend," says Mr McVie.

"We are now broadening the base by bringing astronauts into the classroom, and we are tracking space school alumni to measure its impact in terms of courses studied and careers pursued."

The impact on Terry Wilcutt, who became an astronaut in 1991 and has notched up 17 million miles in space during four missions, orbitting Earth more than 600 times, has been considerable. "We visited schools and talked to 15,000 youngsters this summer," he says. "I used to be a high school maths teacher and I still take a keen interest in education.

"I have been very impressed by what I've seen in Scotland. I don't know any other country with such a consistently high standard of schools and teaching."

SETT Wednesday and Thursday, 9.30am-4.15pm, Glasgow Science Centre

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