‘It smells of science’: hands-on at the Royal Institution

I’ve just spent a fun day in the labs at the Royal Institution for the Telegraph’s education section, taking part in a full day’s biochemistry workshop for GCSE-aged school pupils. Its part of their outreach project aimed at getting more young people into science – who will hopefully go on to study it at university.

The skills gap in science, technology and engineering is growing at an alarming rate, with an estimated shortfall of 10,000 graduates a year.

My feature can be found on the Telegraph website here, or after the fold.

Many thanks to David at the Royal Institution for letting me take part (and lending me a lab coat).

‘It smells of science’: hands-on at the Royal Institution

Science subjects are soaring in popularity at schools across the country, but can this interest transfer to higher education? Cal Flyn meets the scientists intent on inspiring a new generation.

The Daily Telegraph, 12 Sep 2012
 Science at school has never been so popular. Last month A-level entries in Physics, Chemistry and Biology jumped yet again – now up 25.6 per cent, 22.2 per cent and 15.6 per cent respectively in the last five years.

This trend has been dubbed the ‘Brian Cox effect’, after the floppy-haired pop-star-turned-physicist often credited with “making science sexy”. While the scale of Cox’s personal contribution might be debatable, what is generally agreed is that this new vogue for science only be a good thing.

The big question is whether the surge in numbers and enthusiasm can be transferred to higher education.

For Britain needs more science graduates – and it needs them now. While many university-leavers are struggling to land jobs, a growing skills shortage means that graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths (known as STEM subjects) have never been more in demand.

A report from the Lords Science and Technology Committee published in July called for the government to take “immediate action” to ensure that enough young people study STEM subjects to university level, or risk serious economic consequences.

Semta, the skills council, predicts that more than 80,000 scientists, engineers and technologists must be recruited before 2016.

To this end, the Royal Institution – home of the popular Christmas Lectures – has opened the L’Oreal Young Scientist Centre, where it is hoped that hands-on experiments in a professional laboratory may spark a lifelong passion for science or engineering.

A new bacterial evolution workshop at the centre, which launched yesterday, asks pupils to take on the role of a clinical bacteriologist and investigate a mysterious outbreak of a bacterial disease.

I joined a class from the Wavell School in Farnborough as they learned to analyse DNA from a sample of flesh-eating bacteria – and to decide whether their patient has a harmless case of strep throat, or something altogether more worrying.

David Porter, manager of the Young Scientist Centre, explained: “The aim is to give the students more of an idea of what it’s like to work in a laboratory and to underline that science is not just a body of knowledge to be learnt. It’s a process of finding things out and being creative.

“In school you never get a chance to spend this amount of time on one experiment, just trying out processes and trying to answer one question. But that’s what science really is.”

My lab partners agreed. Zach Staplehurst, Harry Smith and Jordan Foster have all opted for triple science at GCSE, but told me that they didn’t have much practical experience.

“There’s not much time in lessons,” said Harry. “So if we do experiments it’s something like burning random elements and then quickly writing it down. We might have two hours of science in one day, but probably not together.”

I asked if he plans a career in science, but he was unsure. In fact, he admitted, it was the first time he had been in a proper laboratory. Beside me, Jordan sniffed at a tiny centrifuge tube. “This enzyme smells weird.”

“It smells of science,” announced Zach.

But soon they were masters of the micropipette, transferring tiny samples onto strips of agarose gel. By lunchtime, the class was gripped. A quick show of hands found more than two thirds now keen to study science or engineering at undergraduate level – or beyond.

Simon Marshall is set on becoming a particle physicist, and has his A-levels picked out already, while Dylan Coombes hopes for work experience at BA Systems in order to study aeronautical engineering.

Fourteen-year-old Holly Thornton wants to study marine biology – “or something else in science, to do with animals”. Asked if job prospects are a consideration, she nodded sagely: “Yes, I think it’s good to get thinking about it already.”

We reconvened in the lab to separate the DNA fragments using a technique called electrophoresis – which causes the DNA to separate and glow under ultraviolet light.

Squinting through thick orange-tinted glasses, the class examined the results – only to confirm our worst suspicions: a deadly case of necrotising fasciitis. The patient must be isolated and treated with antibiotics.

“That was really exciting,” said Holly, as they prepared to leave. “It was great just to be in the lab and see what it’s like to work here.”

Will she be back?

“Definitely. Science is cool!”


Courses at the L’Oreal Young Scientist Centre are available for pupils aged between seven and 18. Further information and details of how to sign up can be found on the Royal Institution website.

Tagged , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: