To appeal to kids, it's got to be fun, reports Sue Law
Mr Potatohead, model dinosaurs and plastic bead bracelets sound a far cry from the complexities of molecular biology but they are part of the arsenal of teaching props used by Nottingham University genetics senior lecturer Liz Sockett to help make science fun for schoolchildren.
If Mr Potatohead has red hair and Mrs Potatohead has black hair, what colour hair will their offspring have? Such questions, using a character from the animated film Toy Story , always fascinate classes of primary children, Sockett says. "Science is fun but people tend to see it as dangerous and frightening." She blames this on ignorance, fear of the unknown and media concentration on bad-news science stories. Her aim is to communicate the good news and to debunk the boffin stereotype.
The idea of adapting Mr Potatohead models with different coloured pipe-cleaners to represent hair and strands of chromosomes was developed with undergraduate Liz Newton for a final-year research project. It has proved a hit with youngsters.
"Primary schoolchildren are fascinated by the concepts of science, but there is a fine balance between making it fun and keeping the facts there so they are remembered," she says.
Sockett has also created a range of other innovative teaching aids, including a large toy E. coli bacterium built of sponges and old washing-up-liquid bottles with curtain-wire for flagella, a DNA jigsaw, and a game to understand gene sequencing where children make up genetic code bracelets using brightly coloured plastic beads.
Sockett's schools outreach work is part of an initiative at Nottingham to communicate research to the public and boost numbers of science students. While there is huge enthusiasm for science among ten-year-olds, it seems to peter out as they get older.
One idea to emerge from Nottingham's Science Communication Group is the publication of a magazine aimed specifically at local children. Sockett is also involved in a National Science Year email project. Children email genetics questions to her and she posts both questions and answers on the Science Year website. They have also been included in a CD-Rom being distributed free to schools by the Association for Science Education.
Sockett, who is also education officer for the national Society for General Microbiology, says she is often impressed by the level of understanding shown by primary schoolchildren. "If I use simple language, I can explain my lab work to them and even ten-year-olds are able to cope."
She is keen to encourage other academics to become involved in schools work and enthuses about the personal payback.
"It really surprises me how, years later, I meet university open-day entrants who say they heard me speak in their school and still remember it. We probably underestimate the influence of just a single day spent visiting a school - that one encounter can change a pupil's life."