Opening the lab doors

Chemistry courses may be closing, but universities are working hard to turn pupils on to science, says Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

The science community can be forgiven for behaving a little like a boxer on the ropes, given the recent closure of Exeter University's chemistry department and the demise of pure physics courses at Newcastle University. But just as boxers can fight back, scientists in education can battle on and do what they can to re-establish the profile and popularity of their subjects. If they succeed, they'll go some way towards countering the economic arguments deployed against their departments.

The science community can be forgiven for behaving a little like a boxer on the ropes, given the recent closure of Exeter University's chemistry department and the demise of pure physics courses at Newcastle University. But just as boxers can fight back, scientists in education can battle on and do what they can to re-establish the profile and popularity of their subjects. If they succeed, they'll go some way towards countering the economic arguments deployed against their departments.

A common theme is the attempt to engage school-age minds with the wonder of science and generate a momentum of enthusiasm, which will increase the demand for places on science courses in higher education. Among many institutions engaged in this new drive is the University of Kent, where the schools of physical sciences and biosciences have set up the science@kent centre. The initiative is about throwing open the lab doors to local schools.

Earlier this week, for example, nearly a hundred students and teachers spent a day doing quantum physics experiments, of the sort that no school laboratory would be able to stage. "There's just nothing better than schoolboys and girls seeing our students being enthusiastic about science," explains Becky Parker, who runs the science@kent centre. The event was the latest in a well-established series of science open days. "We're trying to show people how lovely science is," says Parker, "and we're already seeing the fruits in the numbers of applications we're getting from sixth formers wanting to come to Kent to study science."

And, as part of a "communicating science" project, nine third-year bioscience students are visiting local sixth forms to deliver practical lectures on their work. One school that has developed close links with the university is St Anselm's Catholic School in Canterbury. Off its own back, the school organised a space day, the main attraction of which was the 11-metre Nova/Starchaser rocket - the largest rocket to have been launched from the UK. Matthew Wright, the science college manager, says he's seeing evidence of increased enthusiasm for science among the school students. "With our links to the university science centre, we have a great chance to show the kids what science can do for them."

In a similar outreach gesture at York University, Professor John Holman gave a lecture for pupils, teachers and parents last week on the chemistry of Christmas. This included an explanation of the science of flaming puddings. Holman is the director of the National Science Learning Centre at York, now under construction, which will spearhead the work of nine regional centres - some up and running. The £50m funding has come in equal measure from the DfES and the biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust. The main aim of the centres will be to update school science teachers' subject knowledge and for them to learn new ways of teaching science. The idea is to prevent so many teenagers from being switched off science soon after starting secondary school. "We need a population who feels comfortable with scientific development, which requires a basic understanding of science," says Holman.

But some comfort can be taken from participation levels at the Open University (OU), where there's been a 90 per cent increase during the past six years in students on core-chemistry courses. And about one in seven of these OU students is under 25, which shows that the branch of science is anything but a decaying area of no interest to the young.

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