'Starting with a piece of liver...and other classic introductions'

December 15, 2006

Steven Rose mourns the loss of innovative television and that OU staple, a big beard

The nine of us (two biologists, two chemists, two earth scientists and two physicists, plus our charismatic dean, Mike Pentz) who constituted the initial Open University science faculty back in 1969 shared many commitments as to how and what we wanted to teach. Central was the uncompromising insistence that we were going to teach science, not "about science". In these days of dumbed-down courses and lowered standards, this might read strangely. Our view was that an OU science graduate should be able to compete on level terms with those from any other university when it came to going on to a science-based career, including research. And teaching science meant, above all, lab experience. But how do you achieve this in a distance-learning institution?

Of course, there were going to be summer schools. And we fought for funds to create home experimental kits. Our great hope, though, was television. Forget the jokes about bearded lecturers with flares (and yes, before you ask, I was one of those, and the beard is still there, albeit shorter and whiter). Crucially, television could take science students into the laboratory and into the field - indeed, into many laboratories and fields across the world, far more than an average university student might expect to be able to visit. That was potentially exciting enough, but could we create something akin to an actual lab experience? Well, we could demonstrate methods and machines. For instance, starting with a piece of liver, I made a programme showing how to do a subcellular fractionation to purify nuclei, mitochondria and so forth. I got endless flak from safety officers across the country for that programme, as I committed the heinous sin of mouth pipetting - admittedly it only involved sucking up a harmless saline solution, but still, in an increasingly safety conscious environment, it was bad practice.

"Starting with a piece of liver" is a key phrase here. The BBC fretted inordinately about showing animal experiments on television. I sent shivers down the senior producer's spine by telling him that we had in fact conducted, live on TV, just such a painful experiment involving electric shocks on an awake mammal - he relaxed only when I revealed that I was the mammal concerned. The experiment was designed to show how to measure the speed of nervous conduction up my arm and into my brain. Close-ups could show the actual meter readings and timings from such experiments, and the students were instructed to take the readings from the screen and calculate results, just as if they were in a live lab. Of course, this assumed perfect transmission and clear screens, and we finally gave in and posted them the figures they should have been able to see. Not all our innovations worked.

There were other possibilities, too. Taking a leaf from the old Mass Observation researchers, we sent students kits to measure sulphur dioxide pollution across the country, and to catch and identify moths. The results came in, and each year we made a special programme analysing the several thousand data points, producing a national pollution map - and identifying some novel moth species.

Not all of us took easily to television, and the BBC producers attached to the university worked hard to train us. Above all, what characterised those days was an enormous innovatory enthusiasm. We were pioneers. Of course, it all settled down. Colour replaced the old black and white, prestige programmes replaced our studio chats and we got more slick animations and a higher budget. Who, after all, could compete with Attenborough? But, like other oldies mourning a dawn in which it was bliss to be alive, I can't help feeling that something very important has been lost.

Steven Rose is emeritus professor of biology, the Open University.

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