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Where post-mortems come alive

Watching a dissection live in the classroom via schools intranet Glow has made a stiking impact on pupils. Jackie Cosh reports

Watching real-life practices rather than simply being told about them is inevitably going to remain in the memory longer. This was certainly the case this week when 65 fourth-year pupils at Cathkin High in Cambuslang were among the first in Scotland to watch a post-mortem on a seabird live on Glow.

Broadcasting from the RSPB Sea-life Centre in North Berwick, Jan van Franeker, a senior scientist at the Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem Studies in the Netherlands, carried out the post-mortem on a fulmar. The project is part of its Save the North Sea project, which aims to raise awareness of the damage caused by 20,000 tonnes of litter dumped every year.

With 10 schools taking part, from Shetland to Penicuik, pupils are able to see a part of science that time and resources could not allow. Dr van Franeker talks the students through the procedure, explaining how the age of the bird can be ascertained by its feathers, and why the position of the breast muscle is important. A close-up of the stomach provides an insight no textbook could match.

Jaye Richards teaches biology at Cathkin High. "It is about contextualising learning and bringing to life classwork," she says. "In biology, we cover pollution, the environment and anatomy. It wouldn't be practical for us to do something of this scale in class."

The session allows pupils to ask Dr van Franeker questions as he works - what do the birds eat? Are they in danger of extinction? How did the bird meet its end? The emphasis is on student interaction and it sets them thinking.

While the focus is on the bird's anatomy and what can be discovered about its life, every opportunity is taken to bring in ecology and the problems birds encounter due to the pollution in the North Sea. As bits of plastic and rubbish are removed from the stomach, pupils are surprised, but the realisation hits them that the carrier bags and litter they drop are killing these birds.

The chance to speak directly with experts in the field is also appreciated. Mary Watson, 15, is keen to study Higher biology. "It is good to get a chance to hear from scientists, and watching the post-mortem helped. I like using Glow because it brings it more to life, and you speak to people you wouldn't otherwise."

Robyn Meek, 15, also values the interaction with leading scientists at the centre. "It was really interesting and I've never seen anything like this. It was much better to watch live and it will help with homework, as I will remember more. I was worried what it would be like at first, but it wasn't that bad."

With the marine litter in the North Sea causing one of the worst environmental problems in the region, pollution is becoming increasingly relevant to youngsters.

As Ms Richards says, "In his inauguration speech, Barack Obama spoke about the environment and making changes. So politics and modern studies are covered here too."

Ms Richards is full of praise for Glow and how it can bring events such as this to the classroom. "Glow helps us to engage the pupils more. This kind of event is about what they think is relevant in the wide world rather than just studying facts and figures. It brings in so many areas of the curriculum - geography, modern studies, citizenship, as well as biology."

With the autopsy on the website, learning does not stop here. "We will follow this up in the next lesson, with debates and discussion on the impact of pollution," she says. "The emphasis should be on learning, not teaching."

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