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Experiments in Education

Picture the scene – a mild mannered and normally placid sixth former doing ‘high fives’ with his shocked peers in full view of the bemused on-lookers. Such a show of youthful exuberance is usually reserved for the latest electronic gadget or electronic game. Not so for this second year A level student: Stephen has just learnt that he has won a highly prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science scholarship which will see him jetting off, during the summer holidays, to Rehovot, Israel where he will carry out cutting-edge experimental research in the company of some of the world’s leading scientists.

science.jpgStephen’s success in securing this highly competitive award is a direct result of the engagement of Warwick School and the University of Warwick in a three-pronged educational venture in science which I piloted in 1999 at the King’s School, Canterbury. The scheme – ‘Science for the 21st Century Initiative (SCI)’ – brings together post-16 students from state and independent schools to undertake experimental research supported by partner universities.

Since those early days, having caught the research bug, the participants’ ambitions for research-based learning have continued to multiply in a truly microbial fashion. To increase participation, and to test the notion that able youngsters are blinkered by goals that are exam-driven only, I extended this idea, in collaboration with the University, in a way that allows students to become involved in the business of learning and communicating science at a more sophisticated level than their curriculum encourages. The experiment was an unqualified success and this initial feasibility study is now being explored for expansion into a fully-fledged national initiative.

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Within the research component of the SCI, Year 12 students opt to learn, one afternoon a week, research techniques in pure and applied sciences. The Warwick cluster of six schools typically involves 40-45 students in the training and about half this number progress onto the actual research projects in the second year of their A level studies. The analytical work is carried out at the partner university with funding from industry, research councils, charitable organisations, and learned science bodies. The students publish a national biannual science reviews journal, N-Lighten and stage a biennial national conference.

Small molecule – big future

The focus of the research conducted so far within the SCI is a gaseous biomolecule, nitric oxide, a Jekyll and Hyde character! It acts as a chemical messenger between cells, a dilator of blood vessels, an inhibitor of blood clots, an immune system activator and a killer of the body’s defective cells. Despite its multifaceted interactions within the living body, nitric oxide’s passive disposition outside living systems is puzzling; it is this paradox which the young researchers have found fascinating.

moquote.jpgThus, several groups of students, working in small teams, at Warwick School seek answers to some fundamental questions in biomedical sciences. How does nitric oxide act as a villain? Knowledge of this will help us to formulate approaches that counteract nitric oxide’s mutinous behaviour towards the body’s own genetic material. Ultimately, it may suggest therapies in our fight against those cancers that are particularly linked to the inflammatory response from chronic exposure to this fearsome adversary.

Excited by the topical area of the human ageing process, another team is studying how free radicals, highly damaging chemicals, in conjunction with nitric oxide, cause damage to the genetic material, located in the energy-generating machinery of a living cell, that leads to abnormalities associated with ageing. Understanding of the way nature degrades living tissue could lead to antidotes that promote human longevity. Some students are attempting to synthesise hitherto unknown substances that release nitric oxide which could be then be tested for their efficacy as drugs that provide relief from disorders caused by excessive constriction of blood vessels, such as Angina Pectoris. A fourth set of students wish to prepare molecules that mimic the action of a popular medicine for asthma. The group aims to isolate compounds, with a strong likeness to the commercial product, in a multistep synthetic scheme. The young researchers are banking on the hope that their second generation products are likely to be sufficiently biologically active to permit their use in counteracting this ailment.

chemistryjpg.jpgThe way ahead

I would like to see the development of clusters of schools nationally, each linked to a local university on the Warwick – Warwick School model. This would promote collaboration between the state and independent sectors of secondary education. Members of the local business fraternity, engaged in science, engineering and technology, could be invited to furnish the funds for the entire programme. The SCI is also perfectly poised for financial support from the government to bring this vision to fruition.

For further details, contact Dr Mo Afzal: ma@warwickschool.org