Original features

January 1, 2009

Universities all over the country are upping their efforts to get schoolchildren on campus, but a science centre at Queen Mary, University of London is hoping to raise the bar substantially when it opens this spring.

Centre of the Cell is certainly visually striking: a futuristic "pod", shaped like a cluster of cells and suspended within the vast, glass, award-winning Blizard Building.

Below the pod, some 400 scientists from the Institute of Cell and Molecular Science are working to further the understanding of stem-cell biology, the genetics of common human diseases including tuberculosis and HIV/Aids, on a research floor the size of a football pitch.

The Blizard Building, designed by Alsop Design and AMEC, won a 2006 Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) award for high architectural standards and contribution to the local environment, as well as a 2006 Civic Trust Award.

In the words of Riba: "This is 'science as theatre', with all the operational props on display: rows of laboratory coats and banks of sterilised jars. Science has suddenly become glamorous - and interesting."

The idea for a centre dedicated to firing young people's imaginations about science was central to the design of the laboratory from its very inception.

Although cell biology and an understanding of sickness and health form a substantial part of the science national curriculum, research carried out by the team behind the centre found that many young people have difficulty understanding cells, find science "boring" and think that scientists are invariably white, male, middle-aged and "mad".

"We want to challenge the stereotypes and inspire young people's curiosity and learning by connecting science to everyday life," said Frances Balkwill, the centre's director.

"This will be the first dedicated resource aimed at young people and their teachers to help them learn and teach about cells and medical research."

Students can expect to be impressed from the moment they arrive at the Blizard Building, one of the most popular visitor attractions during London's annual Open House architectural festival.

During visits to the facility, students enter the pod via a rainbow-coloured walkway above the labs. Once inside, classes of 30-40 at a time will watch a video projected on to the cell's walls before its "nucleus" unfolds to reveal a series of interactive learning games.

Science "ambassadors", drawn from the university's student body, are on hand, and learning can continue before and after the visit via an interactive website, with resources for students and teachers.

The website offers opportunities for students to engage in ethical debates, including whether it is right to do animal research, to follow the stories of real-life patients and the science behind their illnesses, and to play educational games.

Critically, all the content has been developed from the work of scientists and researchers at the university and its medical school.

"Already 80 academics have contributed, and we have been thrilled by the level of interest. The fact that the content is driven by working scientists gives it relevance and a cutting-edge element, and the sessions for our students to train up to work in the pod are fully booked," Professor Balkwill said.

Based in Whitechapel, in the borough of Tower Hamlets, the project has enormous potential to raise young people's aspirations. More than 8,000 local pupils have been involved in the development stage, "road-testing" educational materials targeted at nine to 19-year-olds and the centre will cater for up to 30,000 visitors a year.

Professor Balkwill hopes the centre will become a model that others will follow.

"We have learnt a lot from doing this and we hope we can help others in the UK and abroad too - the centre could be cloned.

"It has attracted interest from science ministers abroad," she added.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

Suggestions for this series are welcome: matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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