Let pupils experiment in the lab: geneticist

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 February, 2008, 12:00am
 

Children should be given greater freedom to experiment and take risks with science, the British geneticist whose discovery of DNA profiling radically changed crime investigation said this week.

Sir Alec Jeffreys, a professor of genetics at Britain's University of Leicester, said children were missing out on the opportunity to conduct exciting experiments.

'In the UK you simply cannot do the sort of hands-on science that I could do as a child,' said Professor Jeffreys, who delivered the Shirley Boyde Memorial Lecture at the University of Hong Kong on Tuesday.

Although he acknowledged that some risk was involved, Professor Jeffreys said giving children freedom to explore could help inspire the next generation of scientists.

'There's many ways of inspiring scientists but the best way is to get your hands dirty and do it,' he said. 'I'm not saying we should take the gloves off completely but there's got to be a balance.'

Professor Jeffreys bears the scars of his own childhood experiments. After receiving his first chemistry set at the age of eight, he found out the hard way just how painful highly concentrated sulphuric acid could be when splashed on skin.

His scar, which is now covered by a beard, did not stop him from pursuing experiments. He went on to dissect a cat on the family dining table after finding it dead on the road.

Professor Jeffreys said that by the time he was about 12, he was up to university standard in chemistry. 'That solely came about through going out there, getting chemicals, doing experiments,' he said, adding that students could no longer explore in such a 'free-spirited way'.

With DNA testing now a staple of television crime shows, Professor Jeffreys said the discovery had helped science reach out to millions and 'taken science out of academia and into the living room'.

For students who want to follow in the footsteps of their CSI heroes, Professor Jeffreys had this advice: 'Go for it. Science is terrific fun. The fact you can go out with your bare hands and find out interesting things about the world through experimentation, that never ceases to amaze me.'

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