Huddled around a blood-spattered board, fifth-former Lok Tin-ching and her teammates heatedly discuss how the fluid was splashed across the surface. If the exercise recalls CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, that's understandable - the teenagers were among 100 secondary school students attending a six-day forensics camp at City University, where they learned to analyse splattered blood, examine DNA and conduct other tests. Local universities have been reaching out to secondary students this summer through a range of activities, from themed camps to credit-bearing short courses, and they've been a hit with many. Tin-ching, a student at St Mary's Canossian College, has attended three sessions including a DNA camp at Chinese University and a biochemistry camp at Polytechnic University. 'At the Chinese University camp, I did DNA profiling for paternal verification. At PolyU, I got to tinker with bacteria for the production of protein,' she says. 'All these experiences help me better prepare for my future degree studies.' There's more to it than giving students a taste of the research and critical reasoning required at university. They also offer university faculties a chance to attract curious young minds to their disciplines. At Baptist University, for example, the chemistry department is running its first summer programme for senior secondary students. Two-thirds of the schedule is devoted to lab work and the staff has taken pains to make it interesting for the youngsters, says programme co-ordinator, Professor Chan Wing-hong. 'Most experiments are relevant to their daily lives. In one, students mix chemicals to make fluorescent sticks used at concerts. Another teaches them how to make nano-sized gold particles for the detection of melamine in chemical solutions,' Chan says. 'We have organised science fairs and summer camps for junior secondary students before, but they were just for fun. This is the first time we've designed a programme with solid academic content for secondary kids.' Part of the idea is to attract more bright students to the department, Chan says. 'Due to the lack of interesting learning materials at secondary schools, many students gifted in chemistry do not choose it after graduation. We want to show them chemistry is a rigorous subject that also involves lots of fun.' For students at the CityU forensics camp, it is a chance to play amateur sleuth instead of simply attending lectures on DNA sequencing and ballistics. Organisers have converted six rooms in a student hostel into a mock crime scene, where a victim called Charles was murdered. Occupants of the five adjoining rooms are suspects, and participants must identify the killer from clues such as bits of broken glass and a mysterious powder. Five days into the camp, Tin-ching has realised a key requirement of forensic work. 'The cardinal rule is to be 100 per cent sure by conducting tests. Shards of a glass-like substance were found at the crime scene. A density test showed that the substance has a lower density than glass. So the milk and glass bottles found in the suspects' rooms can be ruled out as relevant to the case.' Spending her holidays in a lab doing tests may seem unexciting compared to the overseas study tours that many of her classmates chose, but Tin-ching has had a great time. 'I'm impressed by the state-of-the-art facilities [at the universities],' she says. 'Although we learned about using infrared spectrometers for substance analysis at school, we've never had the chance to do experiments with them because of the tight schedule and lack of cutting-edge equipment at school.' Such enthusiasm is no coincidence. All participants at CityU's forensics camp are science buffs recommended by their schools, says Professor Michael Lam Hon-wah, the event's organiser. 'The knowledge and experiments are drawn from a forensics course for chemistry and biology majors,' he says. 'Half of the camp material is not covered in the secondary curriculum. And while some concepts are taught at the secondary level, students often don't have the chance to test them out due to their school's basic lab set-up.' Across the harbour at the University of Hong Kong medical school, an unconventional scheme is helping open young eyes to the grittier realities of the profession while strengthening their knowledge of human anatomy. Having been introduced to the intricacies of bone surgery in a series of lectures using anatomical models, five students were assigned to shadow orthopaedic specialists on their hospital rounds for two weeks. Lo Ka-yee, a Form Five student at Diocesan Girls' School, was paired with assistant professor Michael To Kai-tsun at the Queen Elizabeth and Duchess of Kent children's hospitals. By having her in tow from 9am to 5pm for two weeks, the paediatric orthopaedic specialist says Ka-yee is getting a better idea of what it takes to be a doctor. 'She can see all the ups and downs involved in a single day's work,' he says. 'Some students aspire to become doctors because they are attracted by the glamour of the profession. Others enter the field to fulfil their parents' wishes. They don't really know what's in store.' Ka-yee got a sobering glimpse when she observed Dr To perform an operation to lengthen a limb. 'Performing surgery is strenuous work that requires absolute attention and precision,' she says. 'A procedure can go on for hours, with a doctor pinned to the same spot hovering over a multitude of tools and bloody tissue. It has little to do with the image portrayed on TV.' Besides summer camps, PolyU and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology have gone a step further by rolling out credit-bearing courses that contribute towards degree studies. Launched last month, the Summer Institute at HKUST offers 27 courses from four faculties, each carrying one credit, with participants limited to four courses. Some 670 students signed up for the four-week programme that includes field trips, lab work and lectures. Last year the English, social science and electrical and mechanical engineering departments at PolyU began offering a three-credit summer course over two years for senior secondary students. It's equivalent to an introductory course at the university, says Wan Chi-keung, special assistant to the vice-president for academic development at PolyU. 'Requirements of lab work and lectures at the Summer Institute are stringent and correspond to those for undergraduates,' Wan says. 'Service work at the end of the programme allows them to put what they learn into practice. Students in the English faculty are sent to rural schools on the mainland to teach. Engineering students go to poor Chinese villages to help construct solar pumps and lamps.' Science themes dominate many summer programmes, but arts students can also get an early taste of the critical reasoning required at the tertiary level. In a five-day camp organised by HKU's Faculty of Arts last month, students took part in workshops exploring cultural differences, and visited the Public Records Office in Kwun Tong for a research exercise into government anti-drug campaigns. Students are encouraged to think critically and creatively at the camp, says Dr Yoshiko Nakano, the faculty's associate dean responsible for co-ordinating outreach and development. 'They are given the answers to questions in high school but don't know how to conduct research. By digging through historical records in the government's archives, they get to know the processes involved in the search for knowledge,' she says. 'We want to take them out of their comfort zone.'