The Centre of the Cell

This week saw the launch of the Centre of the Cell, a new children orientated science center located in the heart of Tower Hamlets in London. We sent Meera along to find out more...
06 September 2009

Interview with 

Professor Fran Balkwill of Queen Mary’s University, London; Fiona Haddesly Smith & Esmee, Petchley Academy; Helen Skelton, Blue Peter.


Meera -   This week saw the launch of the Centre of the Cell, a new children orientated science center located in the heart of Tower Hamlets and I'm inside the center itself now and it's very impressive, structurally, because it's basically a large orange pod that suspended from the ceiling over a working laboratory.  And with me now is the director of the project, Professor Fran Balkwill from Queen Mary University of London.  So Fran, tell me more about The Centre of the Cell.  What exactly is it and what does it hope to achieve?

Fran -   The Centre of the Cell is about inspiring the next generation of scientists and doctors and it's also a unique project, not only because of its location within the working research building, but because it's actually scientists who have led the project and its content has come from over 80 of our scientists.

Centre of the CellMeera -   And what is the content really?  So, what do scientists come up for it?

Fran -   The top-level message is that your body is made of millions of tiny cells.  When you're real, your cells have gone wrong and scientists in this building and all around the world are trying to find ways to make cells right again and make you better.

Meera -   And what would you say the aims of the centre are because it's located here in Tower Hamlets which is not necessarily most affluent of areas.  So, that's one of the primary goals of it, isn't it?

Fran -   Yeah.  It's about raising educational social aspirations.  It's about saying to the kids at Tower Hamlets, "You're worth it."  It's very much a local project.  We've involved 8,000 local children so far in evaluating every stage of the project but it's also got a global reach because we have our website which has had over 10 million hits from 140 different countries and many of the games in the pod are also available on the website.  But it is, in terms of the pod itself, it's about bringing in our local young people and inspiring them about science and having a dialogue with them.

Meera -   And what would a stereotypical visit then involve?

Fran -   It's free.  Booking is made online because it's a sort of planetarium type of experience.  As children come in, they look down over the research laboratories and they come into the pod.  Then there's an opening audiovisual sequence which is about cells and cell biology and then in the middle of the pod, the lighting changes and this amazing structure called the nucleus opens and inside, you find games about cells and cell biologies.

Meera -   Now, I'm just wondering around inside the Centre of the Cell and the pod has opened up to a variety of interactive games and I'm here with Esmee from the Petchley Academy.  Hello, Esmee..

Esmee -   Hello.

Meera -   Are you normally interested in science at school or has this helped you to learn?

Esmee -   I like science but I prefer more practical science and it helps me learn it.  So, I think this is helpful.  I mean, it's really interesting, the way it's actually in a laboratory and you can watch real scientists work.  It kind of puts into perspective.

Inside Centre of the CellMeera -  So we've heard the aims of the centre and the opinion of a student visiting it.  But is it really educating visitors?  Well, Fiona Haddesly-Smith is the Vice Principal of the Petchley Academy.  So Fiona, what do you think about the center?

Fiona -   I think the most significant thing will be that it is such an interactive set of games that are going on here.  And it is very, very interactive, and everything that the students have been learning in the classroom, they can actually take out of the classroom actually use it and see it working in practice.  Especially when the students are seeing the scientists working downstairs, so they do realize that scientists have real jobs and it's not just something that me as a teacher teaches in the classroom.

Meera -   And would you say then that the games and activities here really do then match what they're doing in their classrooms, so they match the curriculum?

Fiona -   They certainly do match the curriculum and I've been looking around and it is absolutely fascinating to see that a lot of the challenges that are presented at Key Stage 3 and actually Key Stage 4 are very precisely addressed here, especially modern science, modern treatments of medicine.  Looking at cancer, looking at the way in genes are inherited, looking at the way in which genetical traits are passed on from one generation to the next.  And it's really fantastic to see that you're talking now to a real life scientist who is saying the gene for deafness is passed on from one generation to the next.  And although I may be teaching that in the classroom, they can actually see it working in action here and that is absolutely brilliant.

Meera -   Today's launch was opened by Blue Peter presenter to Helen Skelton.  Hello, Helen.

Helen -   Hello.

Diana -   So Helen, what's your opinion on the Centre of the Cell here?

Helen -   Well, I was invited to come along and to be honest when I walked in, I just kind of stood there and I was going, "Wow!  This is cool."  I have to hold my hands and to be honest, if you said to me, "Helen, let's go and look at a science lab," I'd think, "Hmm.  I'd rather not.  That sounds a bit boring."  But this is isn't like that.  It's full of games, it's full of actual human organs that you can get your nose right up to and I think it just brings it to life and for me, science was always the boring subject at school, but this certainly isn't a boring experience.

Meera -   What do you think about the fact that it's hanging, kind of over the labs here at St Barts, do you think that helps the people to see what scientists do?

Helen -     Yeah, I definitely do because I think it's easy to go to a museum and you're sort of distant from things then.  But actually, what you're looking at is happening right beneath you.  And sadly, everybody can relate to cancer or HIV or whatever it is and the fact that there are people working right beneath their feet to combat those things is really quite remarkable.


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