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In the Zone: Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists

Picture, if you will, a small octagonal building in the leafy Welsh countryside where dozens of children in lab coats and goggles painstakingly measure volumes of liquid into beakers, observe chemical changes in test tubes and wire electrical circuits — to reveal fundamental truths about the world we live in. No, it is not a sweat shop for science. It is the Education Zone.

Five years ago, in a corner of GE Healthcare’s Life Sciences site near Cardiff, an underused employee recreation center was transformed into something special. Within this facility, a zone for science education was created for primary school students from the surrounding communities.

Since it opened in 2006, over 6,000 students aged 9–11 have come with their classes to the Education Zone to have a ‘genuine’ science experience. Featuring a well-equipped laboratory and science classroom, the site has become a favorite outing for primary school classes across South Wales.

“We have always had a link with local schools — we support them and the science that goes on there,” says Julie Alcock, school science coordinator at the Cardiff facility and founder of the Zone. “It’s a community thing, a PR thing, and it’s part of our corporate social responsibility. We’re putting something back into the community, and we’re encouraging students to take on science and perhaps think about becoming employees here in the future.”


GE’s Culture of Giving Back

Community involvement is deeply embedded in GE’s corporate culture, and for its Life Sciences division, it often takes the form of science education. In Uppsala, Sweden, GE Healthcare Life Sciences managers sit on the board of directors of the Umeå Institute of Technology to help guide the curriculum and ensure students are equipped with the skills they need for future employment. And in the US, just last month, high school students could be found conducting protein purification experiments with scientists at GE Healthcare Life Sciences in Piscataway, New Jersey.

GE Healthcare’s Life Sciences division, which has grown out of the company’s acquisition of Amersham plc in 2004, supplies scientists in research labs, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies with a wide range of laboratory materials, such as systems and supplies for chromatography, filtration, electrophoresis, protein purification and more.

Among the circa 450 people who work at the Cardiff site — engineers, biochemists, physicists and so on — many are parents of primary-school-age children. So when one of their children visits the Education Zone, they are invited to drop in, giving the students a clearer picture of how classroom learning can eventually lead to a real profession.


An Environment That Inspires Learning

Much of the appeal of the Education Zone is the environment.  It consists of two large rooms — a classroom and a laboratory — between which the students split their time. The classroom area is equipped with banks of computers, scientific models and a lab-coat-wearing skeleton named Stan. Posters and drawings by students fill the walls. The laboratory looks every bit the part. Lab furniture and equipment have been designed and scaled for young people — as have the lab coats, which were made specially for children. A periodic table of the elements graces one wall, and scientific instruments are neatly arranged around the room.

Besides the excellence of the facility itself, the other ingredient for success at the Education Zone is the facilitator. A biochemist with 20 years’ experience working for the company, Julie Alcock has found a professional niche that draws on her combined passion for science and teaching.

Julie’s career began at Amersham, now GE Healthcare, in the Carbon-14 manufacturing area, while she attended college part time to advance her education. She later moved to biology manufacturing, and later into research and development, developing new bioassay kits. Julie subsequently stepped into a customer training and support role, engaging with scientists at companies such as Pfizer and GSK.

In 2006, after a brief departure from the company, she accepted an invitation to set up the education program, and has been sharing her passion for science with young people ever since.

“It’s rewarding in that we’re working with the next generation of scientists,” Julie says. “Kids are like sponges — they absorb so much information. They want to know how things work, and why.  They’re not afraid to ask questions.  So this is why we aimed the programme at ages 9–11, because older students begin to be more hesitant.”


A Half-Day in the Life of a Junior Scientist

A typical visit to the Education Zone lasts a full morning, and centers around a single theme, such as microorganisms. For that topic, the visit begins with a classroom introduction to viruses, bacteria and fungi (the three major groups of microorganisms), and then students move to the lab to observe the different rates of carbon-dioxide production from yeast mixtures when incubated in cold versus warm water baths.

Another visit might focus on mixtures, and the importance of isolating pure components from them. After a classroom introduction, the junior scientists undertake chromatography in the lab, where they use chromatography paper to separate felt-tip pen ink into its various-coloured components.

“One of the hardest things to get across to the children is that science is not an instant thing,” Julie says. “Kids today expect to press a button and get an answer. But with science, you have to slow down a bit and think about what you’re doing.”

At the end of the morning, each student is presented with a certificate and a badge.


Enthusing Kids About Science

According to Julie, teachers often comment about the “wow factor” that the experience creates for students. Alongside this excitement is a real focus on the learning activities — something the teachers don’t always experience in their own classrooms. Students at one school voted the Education Zone as their favorite out-of-school visit last year.

“We tell the students they are scientists in school,” says Sean O’Connell, head teacher at Coryton Primary School, “but when they come into this laboratory and put on their white coats and goggles — they look the part and they very much start to play the part.”

An added benefit of the Education Zone is its science resource library.  Schoolteachers are free to borrow a wide variety of teaching equipment — microscopes, models, lab equipment and other science-teaching aids. Teaching materials have been checked out over 300 times so far and, based on that figure, Julie estimates that more than 10,000 students have had access to these resources.

“For students who are perhaps interested in following science as a career when they are older, coming to GE is their first experience of that,” says Sally Phillips, deputy head teacher at Pentyrch Primary School. “There is absolutely a place for [the Education Zone] and we are fortunate to be able to come here and use the facility.”