Friday, 20 March 2015

Celebrating biology: science you get hands-on with

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This week we are shining the spotlight on one of our most popular courses to study at IGCSE and A level, and sharing why we think it is such a compelling subject to learn about. From ecosystems and genetics to biotechnology and microbiology, the science of biology has inspired and fascinated millions of people through countless generations.

NEC is based in Cambridge, home to the University of Cambridge, which is renowned the world over for its research and academic endeavours in biological science and medicine. We are fortunate to have been able to enjoy the annual two-week-long Cambridge Science Festival, which is currently under way. The Festival offers the public a chance to explore and learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics through talks, debates, presentations, interactive demonstrations and hands-on activities.

NEC Biology Tutor Janet recently visited Cambridge for last weekend’s Festival events, and was delighted by how many of them focused on, or had links to, the subject for which she tutors. On returning from her inspirational day out, she described some of her favourite examples of biology in action: ‘Solar powered cars? Depends on photosynthesis. Light technology? Can be used to diagnose pain, injury and emotional states. In the Pharmacology department we fed water fleas (Daphnia) wine and nicotine and saw the effects on their heart rate. Core practical 1.1 AS Biology!’

Janet also recommends that anyone with an interest in biology and science in general try to get to Cambridge this coming weekend, when Festival events will continue. ‘The wonderful world of blood vessels, the science of eating, enlightened plants, do bees prefer plain or patterned flowers? (useful for farmers), the multiple faces of the brain are just a few of the tantalising topics to be explored further and confirmation that biology is an endlessly fascinating and far-reaching subject.’

The Cambridge Science Festival continues until 22nd March, so there is still time left to visit and plenty to see and do.

For those who might not be able to make it to Cambridge, NEC Biology Tutor Donal has an idea for a science event you can enjoy from closer to home. Titled ‘Finding Monsters in Your Garden’, this hands-on activity looks at how the early life cycle of the fictional creature from the Alien sci-fi films can also be found in a real animal that probably lives in your garden. But don’t worry, this animal is completely harmless to humans!

In fact, it’s a tiny kind of wasp. Brown in colour, it could be mistaken for a small fly. Like the alien, the wasp needs to lay its eggs in a living organism in order for its young to develop. Luckily, the wasp is looking not for humans but tiny green aphids. Donal explains how, once the wasp’s young are sufficiently developed, they will spin a silk cocoon and pupate into an adult: ‘Although the aphid is dead its outer skin is still intact and attached to the plant. The aphid is now said to be mummified (like an Egyptian Pharaoh!). After a few days a new adult wasp develops, bites its way out and flies away to look for more aphids.’

‘Since they are so small, the adult wasps can be difficult to see, but they are easy to find at the mummified stage. They stand out from other aphids because they look a bit fatter and they don’t move if they are disturbed. The silk used by the wasp can colour the aphid. Some are golden, others are black or brown. Some species of these wasps build their cocoon under the aphid body in a silken tent. Next time you see a colony of aphids, take a closer look and you might see some aphid mummies. If you don’t see any, take a piece of the plant home with some aphids on it and put it a vase of water. The mummies might appear in a few days. Good places to look for aphid colonies are roses, beans, thistles, nettles, knapweed, oak and sycamore.’

‘Happy monster hunting,’ Donal finishes. ‘Let us know if you find some!’

If engaging with biology for fun makes you consider taking your interest further, or if you were already thinking of formalising your curiosity about the subject, you could study for an IGCSE or A level in biology with NEC from the comfort of your own home. An IGCSE could be your first step towards a career in science; an A level could help you to gain the opportunity to study for a degree. One NEC learner whose future in science already looks bright is Kelly Chaplin, who was recently chosen to represent the Society of Biology at the annual Voice of the Future event at the House of Commons. Kelly is studying for an A level in Biology with NEC and plans to continue her studies at university level.

NEC courses cover many different topics, and can be studied flexibly at a time and place that suits you. NEC Biology Tutor Jennifer says many of her learners have talked to her about why they find our biology courses so intriguing to study: for example, they are impressed at how well-designed living organisms are – including human beings. ‘Studying biology, you will find out how we work on many levels – biological molecules, cells, tissues, organs and organ systems – to the whole organism and how we interact with the environment,’ she explains. ‘Since my earliest science lessons, biology has been my favourite because it tells us how living creatures work. There is an amazing diversity of life on Earth, yet we all share common features and processes; we must all consume and transform energy, and, we must all regulate our internal environment to maintain a stable and vital condition.’

To learn more about studying Biology with NEC, visit our website or get in touch and speak to our team, or find us on Twitter and Facebook. To learn more about the Cambridge Science Festival, visit their homepage, where you can also find a complete guide to what events are on offer this weekend.

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