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Dividing and Conquering

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Biology is all about dividing and conquering. And more, it is a subject about us all. Humans are a complex mixture of cells – as we grow, these cells divide, thereby multiplying to make us bigger. 

In Year 12, we explore how cells divide, in greater depth than in the GCSE course. With a wide age range of students at Fyling Hall School, from the juniors to seniors, there’s a wealth of rapidly-dividing cells all around! However, as it’s probably frowned upon to experiment on the students, we decided to use garlic. 

Garlic has the added advantage that anything left over contributes to rather good Spaghetti Bolognese in the Barrett household. We used the root tips from garlic bulbs that have been sprouted in water. The tip, or meristem, consists of a region of rapidly-dividing cells. Later, these will differentiate into the various tissues which form the plant’s root.  Any plant root would do. Garlic, however, is easy to purchase in Sainsbury’s. (Other supermarkets are available.) 

I waited with baited breath to conduct this experiment again this year. Experience has taught me that investigations of this sort, involving microscopes, are generally 99% perspiration and 1% elation. Essentially, the process involves looking through hundreds of cells to locate the few that are dividing. 

Triple Stage

This year, with the truly personalised learning that Fyling Hall offers, my Year 12 Biology group consists of Leonardo, a student who has joined us from Munich. Teaching a class of one is a first for me.  With a class of 20, the laws of probability ensure that at least one of the students would generally be able to locate the cells dividing. This was far from guaranteed with one person searching, or even two, counting me. Leonardo and I spent a nerve-wracking couple of hours hunting for some good examples. 

However, the benefits of the small group outweigh this slight disadvantage. The practical instructions provided by the examination board required a number of adjustments. Working one-to-one meant we could refine the protocol to enable us to prepare microscope cells which showed good structural integrity at the highest magnification we considered – 800 times. 

Best Example

In the final 15 minutes, we found our very best example. It led to the lesson overrunning by about half an hour as, excitedly, we recorded our findings on the camera mounted on the microscope. Let’s say we were indeed, a little elated!  It is a pleasure to teach such an enthusiastic student as Leonardo, but I have it on good authority (from other sixth formers) that Leonardo may have made the odd comment about the enthusiasm of his teacher too. 

It’s now over 15 years since I left my role as a post-doctoral biochemistry researcher at the University of Glasgow. It’s nice to see that I am still as excited by practical investigations today. 

And I got my Spaghetti Bolognese for supper. 

Dr Stuart Barrett, Head of Science

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