Young minds grapple with Snog and other great issues

February 11, 2005

Sixth-formers may have traditionally fretted about their love lives or their acne, but a radical new education project has plunged them into deeper waters - seeking a possible cure for cancer and creating cheaper medicines for the Third World.

The "Science for the 21st Century" initiative, which is being piloted in Warwick and Peterborough, aims to reignite interest in science by letting sixth-form students loose on real research, with little spoon-feeding from teachers.

Mo Afzal, senior research fellow at Warwick University and head of the science faculty at Warwick School, launched the project because he believes that schoolchildren are staying away from science not because it is too difficult - but because it is not difficult enough.

"My argument is that if you are not challenging bright brains, you haven't got a hope in hell of exciting them," he explained.

"The system is all about passing exams, but it's no longer a challenge for good students to get a string of grade As."

Dr Afzal has arranged for high-achieving students from a mixture of public and state schools to link up with Warwick and Cambridge universities on several biochemical science projects.

After a year of training in research methodology, the sixth-formers are given access to thousands of pounds of impressive kit that is never normally seen in school laboratories.

They are encouraged to "liaise" with a lab technician brought in from a university and to answer their own questions as they go along. There is no textbook.

Dr Afzal said: "They realise that this is a situation where Dr Afzal doesn't know the answers himself."

The mixed group of students, who have given up the chance to do army training, salsa dancing or rugby in order to spend Thursday afternoons experimenting in the lab, are eager and serious.

There is not so much as a smirk when Dr Afzal explains the need to work with a chemical called Snog (S-Nitrosoglutathione).

Philip Antrobus, a sixth-former at Warwick School, whose research group is working on a new method for making a cheap anti-asthma drug that could be used in developing countries, said: "Chemistry practicals are usually designed around a rack of six test tubes and you don't get beyond that. But we are really putting theory into practice."

Alicia Howard, a pupil at King's High School in Warwick who is working with three boys to investigate whether nitric oxide can cause cancer, said: "It was a shock for the girls when we came here. But Dr Afzal is at the forefront of what is going on in science."

Robert Balmer, a Warwick School sixth-former who is exploring possible new treatments for cardiovascular diseases, explained: "If it goes wrong in a chemistry lesson, it is your fault. But here no one else has done the work before so it's much more exciting. It's a long way from A-level chemistry."

Perhaps the greatest testament to Dr Afzal's mission is the fact that every student in the lab is planning to pursue science or medicine at university.

This is what keeps him going. "I'm not here for the money - there's no money in education," he says. "I'm here because I think these guys should be pushing the frontiers."

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