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Lab equipment needed at Grammar School

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Editor: The St. Vincent Boys’ Grammar School – of which I am an alumnus – celebrated the centenary of its existence this year. I am told that the event was marked with a series of activities throughout the year, culminating in a grand finale at the Victoria Park some time early in September.

I visited St. Vincent during the last week of September and took the opportunity to pay a visit to my old school. As I expected, much had changed over the fifty odd years since I left those hallowed halls:{{more}} there is no vestige of the old school as I knew it; the enrolment is much larger and as a consequence the physical plant and the staff are larger; the teachers are no longer all male, the majority seem to be of the fairer sex; while the senior pupils are still required to wear ties, apparently the male teachers are not.

Some aspects of the change I witnessed are nothing of which I could be proud. I was somewhat taken aback by the writing on the walls of the classroom I visited and at the apparent lack of discipline among some of the boys. My greatest shock and disappointment, however, came when I visited the science laboratories.

No fire extinguishers

Having spent my entire professional career in the Life Sciences, I paid the Biology Laboratory a visit. I met with one of the Biology teachers who took me to the Laboratory where I saw a skeleton, a number of desks and a cylinder or two of what I assumed was propane. I asked: “Where are your microscopes?” The reply, “We have none!” I asked: “Where are the fire extinguishers?” The reply here was no different from the first.

Biology, like other subjects in the sciences, is a practical subject that requires the running of Laboratory classes. These classes are designed to provide students with first-hand experience with concepts dealt with in the course and the opportunity to explore methods used by scientists in their discipline. Further they are designed to develop in the student, certain skills – manipulation, observation, recording (by way of drawings and diagrams, graphs, tables, narratives), drawing inferences from observed data, making measurements and determining magnifications, to mention a few.

One of the key instruments used in making observations in a Biology Laboratory is the microscope. Some pupils offer Biology as a subject at the CSEC examinations of the Caribbean Examination Council. The syllabus is divided into five sections (A-E), for each of which there is a suggested time-table allocation. It is suggested that Section B (Life Processes) be allocated 40 weeks of the 65 weeks over which the course should be run. The next highest time allocation is to Section C, which is allocated 10 weeks. This gives an indication of the amount of material to be covered and, to an extent, the importance of the section.

Poor substitute

In Section B, as a specific objective, students are expected to “relate the structure of the leaf of a flowering plant to its function in photosynthesis.” The syllabus states that “The external features and the internal structure of a dicotyledonous leaf as seen in cross section under the light microscope” is necessary. Other parts of that section also require the use of a microscope. Textbook diagrams and drawings are a poor substitute for the actual material. One of the characteristics of living organisms is the variability that exists among and within a group. The powers of observation to note differences cannot be sharpened by examining a textbook figure.

If indeed there are no microscopes – and I have no reason to doubt the teacher- the pupils are at a definite disadvantage and it is to the credit of both the pupils and their teachers that some of them obtain Grades of 1 in the subject. However, they are apparently not acquiring some of the skills that are necessary for further study in the subject area.

A good 100-year birthday gift from alumni of the school would be a set of stereoscopic and compound microscopes. I am appealing to fellow old boys to join me in a fund raising effort or making a donation to give the school such a gift. To that end I have suggested to the Biology teacher with whom I spoke that he gets a cupboard with a dehumidifier in which microscopes can be stored, for in the tropics, fungi tend to grow on the lenses if the instruments are not stored under proper conditions.

E. Julian Duncan