Take one sink, some citric acid and create a scientist

May 16, 1997

John Nicholson's new science course at the University of East Anglia is down to earth.

Its modest requirements are a sink, electricity and some tables easily furnished by most village halls. Ideally he will also get hold of some chemicals from the local shop - propane gas torches (aka Bunsen burners) and citric rather than sulphuric acid. Using citric acid keeps the cost down, and improves safety, but more importantly its very ordinariness emphasises science's role in every day life.

Dr Nicholson's Science Starter Programme has won an award, to be presented in the course of Adult Learners week, for its work with adults. The programme targets adults living in rural East Anglia who have ambitions to study for a science degree or who could be persuaded to develop an ambition: people such as the forty-something woman from the jewellers' shop who was always fascinated by crystals and starts work next week as a geophysicist.

"It's a question of developing their confidence really," Dr Nicholson says. As a newcomer to adult education he relishes his students' enthusiasm. "This is real learning. My students are curious, fascinated by the counter intuitive."

Another student, also in his forties, developed an interest in science through television's Discovery Channel. He could not read or write on leaving school. At the moment he is not interested in doing a degree. But the potential is there. "He worries a problem to death," Dr Nicholson says.

Hundreds of potential learners were identified at university open days and mobile science exhibitions. But the idea is not simply to fill up UEA's science courses, which are being cut due to falling demand.

Rather the intention is to build a bridge between promoting the public understanding of science and higher education. Flyers are distributed to post offices, hairdressers and libraries to reach as broad a spectrum of people as possible. "We are interested in developing people's potential," says Dr Nicholson.

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