|Dabbling with DNA is not the sort of thing children aged 13 to 15 normally become involved in. But at Deer Park School, a comprehensive in Cirencester, pupils are pulping mustard plants, extracting DNA, preparing gels and even separating strands of DNA using gel electrophoresis.
A group of 25 pupils has taken a three-day break from their normal timetable to take part in the Jurassic Park Project'- named after the science-fiction film that put genetic manipulation in the public eye. So far, they have been to the Wellcome Institute in London to clue up on the science of heredity and learn some research techniques. They have also searched the Wellcome library to glean what they can about genetic engineering. Now, on their last day, they are readying for a debate on the ethics of gene technology and the myriad of issues raised by it and the Jurassic Park movie.
"The aim is to inspire young scientists", says head of science Jeff Blumson, "We want to give pupils a greater understanding of scientific research and lead them to consider a career in science."
To that end they have not only got the pupils working like biochemists but they are also working alongside professional biochemists from the University of Warwick, the Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS) programme and more. For example, they have had a lecture from Dr Chris Maguire, a home office forensic scientist all the way from Wetherby, on how DNA separating techniques can help solve crimes and paternity cases. And should any pupil need even the slightest help with their cutting edge work in the project, there is a top scientist within reach.
Most of the pupils taking part in the project are regulars at Deer Park's very successful science club. Unusually perhaps, it's a club which constantly attracts over 25 pupils to each session. Reasons for the club's success are only partly evident - certainly the science block is a nice place to come to, and the bright, airy and tall ceiling laboratories are unusually perfect. More telling is that the staff also see the club as worthwhile and turn-up in numbers - up to six teachers at any one time.
Noelle, a year 8 pupil thought highly of the science club. "It's better than lessons. You get more help and with so many teachers there you get to do all the things you can't do yourself in lessons", she added. So far they have made a video of animals, logged data on the weather and used a motion sensor. They have also run the mill of old club favourites such as electrolysis, thermit reactions and of course, stink bombs.
But popularity has its problems too. When the Jurassic Park Project' was announced, the combination of a thriving club and exciting ideas about live dinosaurs generated a great deal of interest from the pupils. Science teacher and project leader, Steven Hacker had the job of finding a way to select the most suitable pupils. Each pupil had to write a statement on why they wanted to be involved but even that did not entirely help the selection process - some children wrote about their interests, others about their intended careers so comparisons were not easy. He recalled, "In the end the staff sat down and chose them on the basis of whether pupils would benefit and whether they were regular visitors to the science club."
Jeff Blumsen is more than happy with what some might call `cherry picking'. "We often hear in the press how comprehensives aren't doing enough for the top kids. Here, we pick out the brightest kids and give them special attention."
Could other schools have a go at this sort of work, I wondered, as it was evidently an excellent way to capture the interest and involvement of a whole department? A difficulty which Jeff Blumsen identifies, is finding how schools can make links with scientists. "It would be very much easier if a structure existed so that schools could identify partner institutions and projects."
On this occasion, he happened to stumble upon the SAPS people at the Association for Science Education annual meeting. They were fortunate that SAPS could help them put together the equipment to do gel electrophoresis. They were also fortunate that a school governor was a retired biochemistry professor and could easily help them make further contacts.
Nevertheless, Deer Park School are not too short of ideas. In last year's project they studied ants, visiting the University of Bath to meet an expert on ant behaviour. The children collected ants, created nests and observed ant behaviour both for both real and by using a computer model specially adapted for them by the university. More than this, the pupils actually took on the roles of ants foraging for food in a spectacular life sized model.
But Jeff was still very open about ideas for next year. "Cold fusion has all the ingredients that would intrigue" he said.
SAPS equipment for DNA electrophoresis is available through scientific equipment suppliers. Deer Park School were keen to acknowledge their sponsorship by the British Biotechnology Research Council, Zeneca and Glaxo.