Many of your teachers will not be science specialists. Angela Youngman has been looking at innovative approaches to the teaching of science that help encourage children’s inquisitiveness
Many primary teachers find it hard to devise imaginative ways of teaching science, especially if they are not science specialists. The younger the age group, the harder it is. Fortunately there are numerous initiatives at hand to make it easier. Using puppets is one innovative solution. Launched at the British Association for the Advancement of Science Festival in Norwich in 2006, a three-year programme is now under way to train 9,000 primary school teachers in how to use puppets effectively in science lessons. ‘Puppets: Talking Science, Engaging Science’ has been devised by a team led by science education specialists Brenda Keogh and Stuart Naylor and backed by GlaxoSmithKline. The approach involves two large handheld puppets that are used to introduce scientific concepts and at the same time pose a problem for the children to solve. The puppet might have lost keys down a grating and cannot get into his house. How can he get them back? What seems like a simple problem becomes a difficult one as the children discover how hard it is to retrieve the keys. Discussions ensue as the children come up with ideas. This is where the concept of magnetism can be introduced and they discover how this can solve the problem. Another typical scenario is that of an alien from another planet visiting earth who encounters solids, liquids and gases for the first time. On its home planet, the alien has only solids. The children have to devise ways of explaining what liquids and gases are, how they work and how they differ from solids. Research findings from the Nuffield Foundation show that children find it easier to learn with puppets, treating them as if they are real characters and thus responding positively to the scientific problems they face. Teachers who attend the training programme gain access to a package that includes a storybook and an animated CD, two handheld puppets each with working mouths which relate to characters in the stories, hands-on experience of using puppets and guidance on how to use the puppets and stories effectively. Teachers have greeted the initiative with enthusiasm. Also available from Brenda and Stuart is the Concept Cartoon system which aims to stimulate children’s scientific reasoning by providing a cartoon series of visual arguments. For example, one cartoon shows a boy holding a newspaper and saying, ‘We will run out of paper if we don’t recycle it.’ Another character comments: ‘Paper is biodegradable so we don’t need to recycle it.’ At the bottom is the question ‘What do YOU think?’ The cartoons can be used to stimulate group or individual discussions plus arguments about the alternative possibilities. This September, the British Association for the Advancement of Science will be launching Crest Star Investigators, which will encourage the development of science investigative skills. A wide range of activities will be available, providing real examples that are relevant to children. Each activity poses a challenge to be solved, discussions and investigations. Three levels are available: star, superstar and megastar. The problems set differ at each level and are of increasing complexity. At the highest level, children have to show they can organise their own work, make independent decisions about the use of materials, how to solve problems, what procedures to follow, how to record their results and what the results mean and communicate their ideas in a variety of ways including paper-based and electronic forms of communication. The issues faced are not just local ones, but operate on a wider basis and they have to research information using books and internet sources. A typical example of ‘superstar’ activity is Racing Rockets involving the creation of rockets out of paper tubes and straws – whose rocket will go furthest and fastest? How can the rocket be improved? Is card better than paper? Would weight in the rocket help? Whereas a ‘megastar’ activity might focus on the Bright Smile Toothpaste Company’s attempts to devise a new toothpaste. Area science learning centres (SLCs) offer regular training courses to help teachers improve their science teaching. For example, the East of England SLC can offer bespoke events such as Science Enquiry to provide professional development for a whole school or school cluster. Its general course programme based at its headquarters in Hertfordshire or at satellite sites includes subjects such as forensic science, and challenging science. They can even assist with planning of events where school groups come into the centre to do work within the laboratories, observatory and planetarium. Why not seek the aid of a professional scientist to help in the classroom? It is possible, depending on the location of your school. Over 160 GlaxoSmithKline employees take part in the Science and Engineering Ambassadors Initiative working with children and teachers to inspire an interest in science, and ultimately increase awareness of the opportunities a career in science can offer. In Norfolk, scientists and teachers have been working closely together for the past 10 years. ‘Teacher Scientist Network (TSN) was set up soon after the National Curriculum was introduced. It was felt that secondary school teachers were often out of date with science while primary school teachers lacked confidence. We linked scientists at the Norwich Research Park and teachers,’ explains TSN co-coordinator Dr Phil Smith. It has proved extremely popular with teachers. Sixty five partnerships currently exist and there is the capacity to double this number. If a teacher moves school the scientist goes with them. It is up to the teacher and scientist to decide how they can best work together. This might involve one visit a year to the teacher’s classroom, it may be more. It may involve bringing a TSN science kit along and using that in class; or it might relate to current issues or subjects being studied in school. Equipment is usually provided by schools, although some special equipment may be borrowed from the laboratories at the John Innes Centre or one of the other organisations on the Norwich Research Park. In addition to acting as a link organisation, TSN has evolved to provide additional facilities for all teachers – with or without a scientist partner. Masterclasses are held offering an opportunity for teachers to improve their own scientific knowledge for example on kitchen chemistry. The highly popular free-to-loan Kit Club provides materials which can be borrowed for use in the classroom. For example there is a Florence Nightingale kit, which is designed to stimulate discussion about the changes in medical knowledge and treatment that have occurred since Florence Nightingale’s time. This kit contains a blood-stained doctor’s coat, soap, plastic aprons, surgical masks and caps, first aid kits each with scrubbing brush, stethoscope, fabric apron and bandages. At present TSN networks are limited in their UK coverage. Apart from Norfolk, there is TSN Wales based at Cardiff, Clifton Scientific in Bristol and Glasgow University Teacher Scientist Partnership. Kit clubs have opened at the North East SLC and at the East of England SLC. More are planned. Contact your local university science department to see if it has a schools liaison officer. For example Dr Jonathan Hare of BBC’s Rough Science programme is visiting fellow at the University of Sussex and runs numerous schools workshops on subjects as wide ranging as moon clocks, light and fibre optics and geodesic domes. A recent primary school workshop focused on C60 Buckminsterfullerene. This is a round football-shaped molecule and the workshop brings in astronomy, shapes and structures, architecture, simple maths connecting symmetrical objects as well as constructing and keeping a molecular model of C60 Buckminsterfullerene. In Cambridge there is a yearly science festival involving dons and students. A whole variety of talks and activities are available, mostly free of charge. The most popular talks can be downloaded and used in school. In the run-up to the science festival more than 30 academics visit local schools to give talks to pupils aged five upwards. Chosen to fit in with the National Curriculum, subject matter ranges from cuckoo tricks with eggs and chicks to how to hunt a submarine. Similar science festivals are often held elsewhere, including the annual BA Festival of Science. By attending, teachers will often gain lots of unusual ideas to incorporate into their teaching. At the University of East Anglia spokeswoman Kay Yeoman said: ‘We often go into primary schools doing subjects like forensic science and biological sciences. Schools can be reluctant to do these subjects on their own – it is a confidence issue. Universities can help in lots of ways if only they are asked.’ Another recent initiative designed to help teachers is the creation of the www.schoolscience.co.uk site managed and administered by the Association of Science Teachers. It aims to provide a comprehensive directory of resources, information and contacts for teachers and students. Although other science educational portals have come and gone, this site is being built to last with backing from major trade associations, research councils and professional bodies. Although the site was only launched in January 2007, it has already attracted over four million users. ‘We intend to continually extend the site and are looking to increase the amount of material relevant to KS1 and KS2,’ commented Rebecca Dixon Watmough, School Science manager. Teachers’ notes and worksheets are provided from a range of sources and give a very different perspective on science. For example learning about space will never be the same again when using the Mars resource from Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). Based around the theme of Mars, Mars Express and Beagle 2 it suggests a range of activities to address ideas about the Earth, Sun and Moon, about how we see things, forces in action and about motion in space. Useful links are provided to other websites where more detailed information can be obtained. Another useful part of the School Science site is access to the Kitpot – this is a scheme to distribute free equipment, apparatus and publications. As Rebecca Dixon Watmough explains, ‘Everything on Kitpot is free to teachers. It can range from CDs, posters, and videos to microscopes. One day there might be 20 items up for grabs, another day 50. It all depends on what institutions and businesses have available.’
Clearly there is no longer any excuse for science teaching to be boring and repetitive, or for teachers to be hesitant in approaching it. There are lots of new resources and ideas appearing which can transform science teaching within any primary school. Look, ask and be amazed at what can be done!