Spiralling off the scale

28th February 2003 at 00:00
Kate Graham visits a project where composing music is fundamental to learning about genetics

At Rokesley Primary School in Crouch End, north London, an animated discussion about DNA is taking place. "There's adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine," nine-year-old Gregory says confidently. "DNA is at the heart of every cell in your body," Aldo continues excitedly. "Every living thing has DNA in it, and it makes you what you are."

This Year 5 class is taking part in Genetic Genesis, the primary school component of the annual flagship project from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, "Creation: A Celebration of Life on Earth". The inspiration for the project was Haydn's oratorio The Creation, written in 1796, celebrating the creation of the world as described in the Bible. But today that story jostles alongside the Big Bang, Darwin's theory of evolution, and the discovery of DNA. In Genetic Genesis, pupils explore these scientific developments and the joy of creation, and compose music that mirrors the structure of DNA.

Devised by Mark Withers, leader of the OAE's outreach and education projects, and Professor Russell Foster of Imperial College, London, Genetic Genesis aims to involve all ages in a creative exploration of the links between music and science. They had taught in areas of social deprivation, and realised the power of interdisciplinary teaching. "One lad hadn't been in the country six months, but could write out perfectly the structure of DNA on the blackboard," Russell explains, "I thought: 'My God, something is working here'."

So Genetic Genesis was born. At the initial workshop at Henry Wood Hall in south London, 180 children built a double helix, and took their first steps in learning about DNA. Dividing a cell into its four components made a clear and simple link with musical notes. Adenine, cytosine and guanine were replaced with A, C and G, and as there is no musical note T, thymine was replaced with a note of the children's choice. With the support of an orchestral musician, each class then had three months to create a piece of music, and in the process of musical repetition and growth, were introduced to the concepts of evolution and natural selection. Russell is confident this interdisciplinary approach enhances children's capacity to learn:

"Bouncing between subjects at this particular age reinforces the information, so you actually convey a lot more music and a lot more science by feeding off the two."

Under the guidance of OAE violinist Catherine Ford, children who struggle with conventional forms of expression have come to shine. "Those children love the creative nature of the project," explains Jill Pugh, a Year 5 teacher at Rokesley, "and they've subsequently taken to the science with real enthusiasm."

Teamwork has also been high on the agenda. Despite the demands of Christmas productions on musical resources, children showed remarkable discipline.

"Sometimes it's hard to wait for other people to play their music," 10-year-old Ellie explains, "because you really want to start doing it yourself. You have to have a lot of patience, but it's definitely worth it."

One of the project's highlights was a classroom experiment to isolate and remove a visible strand of DNA (see box). Miriam Jacobs, also fromImperial College, visited Rokesley to conduct the kiwi fruit experiment, guiding the pupils at each stage but allowing them to participate fully.

"It was a magical moment," says Jill. The pupils are equally keen. "I liked it because we were doing something ourselves, not just writing something down from the board," says nine-year-old Laura. And as for the notion that DNA is too difficult for them to learn: "Nonsense," 10-year-old Charlie says firmly, as heads nod in vigorous agreement.

OAE education officer Cherry Forbes agrees: "It's fascinating that children don't put restraints on learning, they just say 'this is a fun experiment'.

They are very fresh about taking an idea and running with it." With passionate discussion on the future of mankind, gene theory, genetic modification of food, and cloning, the project has clearly captured imaginations. But many feel the national curriculum leaves little room for innovative endeavours. Professor Forster met teachers who would love to be involved, but they say: "It doesn't help me tick my boxes." Jill Pugh admits this was a concern, but with a supportive head she felt confident.

"Curricular things had to be put aside, but the children are getting such a rich experience. In fact, if I could go back, I would take far more time from the curriculum."

The exposure to scientists and world-class musicians has brought ambition and high expectation into class. "After the kiwi experiment I heard one boy exclaim 'And the scientist was a woman!'" Jill says.

And it's not only the pupils who have been inspired. As Jill says: "Having an expert in the field talking me through the topic, at a level far above primary school, has been extremely exciting. I've also more confidence to tackle difficult concepts and see where the children take it. They really can amaze you."

For information about future projects with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Tel: 020 7836 6690

KIWI FRUIT EXPERIMENT

Equipment for 30 children

10 ripe kiwi fruit.

Chopping board and 10 plastic knives.

10 spoons.

Ice.

Tap water.

Large pan of warm water (60 degrees C).

500ml absolute ethanol (100% alcohol) or methylated spirits.

1 reel of fuse wire.

Washing-up liquid (not concentrated).

Salt.

Coffee filters.

250ml bottles.

20ml bottles.

Plastic measuring cylinders

Plastic funnels.

Stage 11 DNA extraction mixture: mix 10ml washing up liquid + 3g salt + 100ml water

2 Finely chop the kiwi fruit, add to the DNA extraction mixture and shake.

Leave for 15 minutes at 60degreesC. Don't put the kiwi fruit in the blender as this will chop up the DNA

Stage 2

3 Filter the mixture through the coffee filter into a beaker to separate the chopped kiwi fruit from the clear liquid. The DNA is invisible because it is dissolved in the liquid.

4 Transfer 5ml of the clear fluid into a clean tube. Add 5ml of cold (around 4degreesC) absolute alcoholmethylated spirits down the side of the tube.

DNA should appear as a "fluffy" white solid.

5 The DNA can be pulled out using a fine wire.

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