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Dr Fiona Aitken and students, Chaucer School.
Dr Mark Wentworth and Professor Jeff Green, University of Sheffield.

Chaucer School, an inner-city Sheffield comprehensive has linked with the University of Sheffield to give students an insight into bacterial research. The project has provided direct experience of the methods used to explore antibiotic resistance in bacteria something of key social relevance as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) continues to hit the headlines.

'The aim of our project is to give students an experience of higher education and access to modern scientific equipment and techniques not available in the classroom', explains Mark Wentworth, of the university's Molecular Biology and Biotechnology Department which has opened its doors to the teenagers. 'This year 60 students aged 1416 have taken part'.

The 'A bug's life' project is funded by the Royal Society Partnership Grants scheme which offers grants for initiatives that bring science alive in schools. At a 3-day masterclass in the teaching labs of Sheffield University, students learn the basics of microbiology before carrying out more complex procedures. The knowledge gained is taken back to school and applied as part of a 46 week project. Finally, the students present the results of their project work to members of the university's staff. 'Students rarely get a chance to stand and talk about their results during normal science lessons', explains Fiona Aitken, the teacher behind the project at Chaucer School.

During the masterclass, students progress from learning how to work safely with bacteria, to experiments using antibiotic- resistant strains. 'Some of these techniques are taught routinely as part of undergraduate microbiology courses', explains Mark. After learning how to culture bacteria on plates, they move on to techniques for calculating the number of bacteria in a solution. Bacterial lawns (bacterial cultures that cover entire plates) are grown by the students to test for multiple antibiotic resistance in bacteria. 'By the end of the three days the pupils are using basic spectroscopy techniques to measure the optical density of solutions and plot the growth rates of bacteria', says Jeff Green. All of the practical work is backed up by lessons covering how antibiotic resistance develops and how to minimise the impact of MRSA in hospitals.