Learning Account: The children had to build a miniature life raft to escape sharks

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The Independent Online
Dr John Nicholson heads the award-winning Science Starter Programme run by the University of East Anglia's centre for continuing education

One of the best things about the Science Starter Programme is its ability to enthuse and engage a whole range of people and make them feel science really is for them. One of my current students is a welder and karate champion called Bruce who now wants to become an expert on fish - particularly sharks. Another has just got a job as a geophysicist.

The success of the programme, which runs one day a week in six five-week blocks, has encouraged me to take it to parts of Norfolk and Suffolk we don't already cover. I started the week visiting University College, Suffolk in Ipswich, which I hope will be able to work with the university to extend the programme. The idea is to attract adults in rural areas who may have dropped out of education years ago and now don't have easy access to a college or university. We offer a course covering everything from energy and living systems to global issues, all explored in practical terms, which can lead into further study.

On Tuesday, I interviewed an up-and-coming science communicator called Ken Farquar over the possibility of using him for one of our courses. He has a chemistry PhD from UEA but uses juggling and unicycling to help the public understand science. Adults are attracted by exactly the same exciting elements of science as children, although where kids believe they can solve problems adults initially don't. Our role is to convince them they can, and then there may be no stopping them.

Later, I went to a planning meeting for the Egg Race - part of the Norwich Science Olympiad which I help run every year. We were devising a scientific challenge for seven-year-olds to test ingenuity and imagination. We abandoned the idea of getting them to build a sea monster which could carry a maximum number of chocolate eggs in its mouth, and decided on a challenge to build a miniature life raft to escape from sharks in the sea.

Thursday is always one of the best days of the week - it's the day I take the science starter course in Bungay, a small market town about 14 miles from the university. We meet in the community wing of the local school, where there's a kettle and fridge and it's very civilised. The group of nine students includes Bruce the welder, three pensioners and a young woman who wants to become an occupational therapist. We started the final "global issues" section of the course, and began looking at the mesh of relationships involving pollution, acid rain and global warming. Standing close to the exhaust of a car provided a convincing illustration of how much soot is emitted!

In the evening, I went to a reunion of students I taught in their foundation year before university four years ago. They now have jobs lined up, and one is borderline for a first in physics. I was particularly pleased to meet Karen, who was working in the jewellery business when I taught her and was fascinated by minerals and gems. She told me at the time she wanted to go into geophysics, and I said: "Do you realise the maths you have to do?" She told me she starts a new job next week - as a geophysicist.

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