THE national conversation about how to get more students engaged in science as a study option and career has been heating up for several months.
Chloe Warren is a Newcastle scientist doing more than talking about it; she's conducting science parties for children and offering intensive science workshops for primary schools.
The 26-year-old University of Newcastle doctoral candidate from Bury-St-Edmunds, near Cambridge in the UK, works at Hunter Medical Research Institute where she specialises in research on treatment of melanoma. In particular, she tells young students she works in the area of apoptosis - "cell suicide" she calls it.
Warren describes it in layman's terms: "When a cell is damaged, it needs to be able to kill itself to protect an organism. If the damaged cell doesn't go through apoptosis, it will survive and become a tumour."
When Warren completed her degree at the University of East Anglia, she did an internship with the Society of Biology in London, a non-profit organisation dedicated to providing a voice for science and encouraging public interest in life sciences. She became involved in creating ideas and coordinating public activities for the Bang Goes The Theory program by the BBC, which was running a travelling science festival across the UK.
"That piqued my fascination with opening up science to a broader group of people," she says.
Fast forward to Warren working at HMRI on the campus of John Hunter Hospital. Warren assisted in organising activities for the institute's open day when the public is invited to explore the facility and learn about projects. "There was a little girl who had so much fun she asked her mum afterwards if she could have a science party," Warren says. "So her mum approached a supervisor and . . . yes, I got involved."
Warren has organised a couple of children's "science" parties so far, and has expanded with a more formal version of intensive science enrichment sessions for schools, recently presenting two two-hour sessions for gifted and talented year 3 and 4 students at The Junction Public School co-ordinated by principal Wendy Cheek and assistant principal Linda Hughes.
"The children at this school are really responsive to these activities," Hughes said. Students were already engaged in making their own natural science collectors' chest, and had been on an excursion to the Australian Museum.
Warren's program for a school session, which is designed to fit in with a relevant curriculum, visits a few primary themes.
For instance, a discussion on bacterial diversity would involve students creating their own bacteria model with clay (in one of three shapes - round, rod or spiral) and explaining where it can live and whether it can make humans ill.
Another discussion focusing on animals would introduce evolution and adaptation. Warren hands out cards - some with animal pictures, others with one-sentence descriptions. The students find their matching partner and then work out where the animal might live (from a choice of snow, desert, urban, coastal) and discuss why they made their choice.
There are also some experiments in the session, starting with pH testing using red cabbage water.
A red cabbage is cut up and put in water (it naturally turns purple from the pigment of the vegetable.) Then various items, like lemon juice and vinegar, are tested to discover if they are an acid or base (acids turn pink, bases turn blue in the cabbage water).
Rating high in the fun stakes is the making of "lava lamps" using a clear plastic bottle, water, vegetable oil, food colouring and a fizzy tablet (like aspirin). The experiment provides an entry to discussion of density and chemical reactions.
The "grand finale" might involve adding Mentos to a carbonated beverage to create a chemical reaction.
"When you're at a children's party, you don't have the time or the attention span, so I run short activities and run them quickly," Warren says. "Schools want more of the learning."
In either environment, Warren takes questions (from children and adults). There is even a handout with a summary of each experiment included in the party bag that goes home after each science party.
Perhaps most importantly, Warren puts herself in front of an audience of students out of her own initiative to show them the possibilities in their own life.
"I am young. I am female. I am not a genius. I am not a millionaire," is part of the message she projects. "This is what I am doing. You can do it, too. You don't have to go to uni. You don't have to get a PhD."
The key is to get young students interested in science, to raise their curiosity, and maybe take it further.
When we talk about problems with society, people say we need to educate kids more," Warren says effusively. "Education is given as a cure-all solution. The pressure is the time constraint. Teachers don't have enough time for everything.
"What often isn't emphasised is the relevance to daily life. Kids don't realise if they go to to study it [science] there are so many career paths. There are so many opportunities and we are short on scientists."