Scottish Enterprise has targeted biotechnology as a key growth area for the economy and school courses in the subject have proved popular since they were introduced in 2000. Intermediate 2 and Higher exams in biotechnology this year were sat by 126 and 23 candidates respectively.
Both SQA exam courses have three units each and neither presupposes knowledge of biology at Standard or Intermediate level. After an introductory unit on the rudiments of microbiology, the second unit takes a practical lab-based approach, teaching the techniques of working with micro-organisms. This is sometimes taken as a one-off unit of study.
In the third unit, the political and social edge of the science comes into focus as students examine the industrial applications of microbiology.
For Intermediate 2, knowledge about the manufacture of anti-biotics, the production of insulin and the use of micro-organisms in food production provides a basis for debate and discussion on ethical issues, both scientific and everyday. Topics at Higher level have a more complex scientific base and cover areas such as embryo manipulation and cloning.
The Scottish Qualification Authority reports a positive response from course participants, who are writing lengthy answers on techniques and practical lab-based work in particular.
Reports from teachers are also positive: teenagers are motivated to study because they can see the direct relevance of the subject.