Whisky lab and crime scene create new thirst for science

4th March 2011 at 00:00
A new skills course gives pupils a chance to work in laboratories for a variety of local industries, writes Jean McLeish

Cool and professional in their white lab coats, science students at Millburn Academy are getting hands-on experience of laboratory work. This bright, spacious Inverness school building opened just two years ago.

These fifth- and sixth-years are among the first in Scotland to embark on the new Skills for Work Laboratory Science Intermediate 2 course. Pupils explore career opportunities in science laboratories in industry and services in a local, national and global context and learn basic lab skills.

Martin Crawshaw, the school's principal teacher for the faculty of science, says they wanted to offer more vocational routes for pupils in S5-6.

Currently aimed at pupils who are not studying science Highers, the new course may be an additional future option for Advanced Higher candidates, he says: "Especially for Advanced Higher chemistry or biology, it teaches a lot of practical skills which universities would expect when they arrive."

Some of the fifth- and sixth-years here today are uncertain about their future plans; others know it will give them the skills they need for their chosen careers.

"I chose this course because I want to be in dental therapy, so I thought it was a good idea to get into the lab techniques before I go," says 17- year-old Jodie Braid.

Her friend Laura Paul, who may train as a nurse, says: "This is not just like sitting writing notes. It's more hands-on and you get to go out to actual businesses and see how they do it, rather than a teacher just telling you that's what they do."

Getting out to industry means pupils see what scientists do locally and globally. One of the partnerships is with diabetes management firm LifeScan in Inverness, part of the Johnson amp; Johnson group.

The school is one of six Highland schools working with LifeScan on the Bridge to Employment scheme, to encourage awareness of employment in science, healthcare and technology. LifeScan now offers science apprenticeships, which could provide future opportunities for pupils like these.

Another partner is Diageo, which has a whisky laboratory in Elgin. "We didn't get to taste it, unfortunately, because there were under-18s there," laughs chemistry teacher David Munro. He did a six-month work placement there 15 years ago and is interested to see how things have changed.

Partnerships like this are organised through Highlands and Islands Enterprise and STEM North. "Normally the Stem ambassador would come into the school and maybe do a presentation to pupils, but I thought it would be a better idea if we could get pupils out and see what a lab looks like in real life," says Mr Munro.

His students visit another of his previous workplaces - the scenes of crime laboratory run by the Scottish Police Services Authority in Inverness.

"This course is geared for S5 and S6," he says. "It's maybe not necessarily pupils that are going off to university straight away. It's maybe not the high achievers, but those who need a few more skills for work, more vocational skills, and this can perhaps give them a foot in the door."

WHAT THEY LEARN

The Laboratory Science Skills for Work course encourages partnerships between employers and industry, further and higher education providers and schools.

Youngsters learn how to measure and prepare compounds and solutions, and understand health and safety implications. They'll develop practical skills in microbiology, measuring radioactivity, chemical handling and scientific instruments.

They learn how to carry out scientific research and report findings - all this with a firm eye on the jobs market - some may go on to further and higher education, others to further training or employment.

"It's hands on - we get them to do everything themselves," says science technician Jane Manson.

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