A murder investigation, crisis in outer space and stick insects! Peter Leyland reports on a chemistry competition that really gets pupils thinking

It’s not often that I’m in the right place at the right time. However, when Andrew Thompsett, senior lecturer in biochemistry at the University of Bedfordshire, asked me to be a judge in a chemistry competition, I jumped at the chance. It would be an interesting way to develop my knowledge of how a vital area of the curriculum can meet the needs of able pupils. Science is one of those areas which really lends itself to the development of thinking skills in the most able students. In 1989 Michael Shayer and Phillip Adey, whose research I helped with, produced CASE (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education). This was a scheme for Years 7 and 8 which led to a higher proportion of A-C grades in GCSE science groups than was achieved in similar control schools where traditional methods were used. The CASE students also achieved better results in maths and English, suggesting that they had successfully transferred their thinking skills to other subjects.

Festivals of chemistry

Science then, is recognised as a powerful tool to promote thinking in young people, and this was amply demonstrated by the young scientists who attended any of the 55 Salters’ festivals of chemistry held in the UK and Ireland between March and June. The festivals are supported by the Salters’ Institute and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), and are designed to promote the appreciation of chemistry among young people. In 2007, schools in the eastern region area had been asked to enter teams of keen pupils in Years 7 and 8 who wanted to pit their wits against two scientific challenges in the university laboratories. Nine groups of four pupils, each accompanied by a teacher, duly arrived at the University of Bedfordshire. They were from a variety of schools including both state-run and private schools, and the teams included pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties and other special needs.

Murder mystery The first challenge in the morning was for the pupils to act as forensic scientists. Each team was given a police report about the discovery of a body. This was accompanied by information about five murder suspects and a number of exhibits. Pupils were told that a white powder (sample X) had been found on the body. Their task was to compare this sample with the exhibits – various powders found on the clothes of five suspects.

The five suspects were:

  • a farm worker
  • a road gritter
  • a factory worker
  • a builder
  • a gardener.

The procedure, familiar to teachers of chemistry, is that you separate the salts in sample X and use flame tests to identify the metal part of the salt. This is done by identifying the colour produced by the flame. You then test for the non-metal part of the salt to find out whether your sample is a carbonate, a chloride or a sulphate. Nine teams of highly motivated youngsters set to work. Some were quick off the mark, confident, and at ease with the surroundings and the equipment; others were less sure and watched other groups carefully before they began. One team was a member short – a boy had fainted at the start, a result of a vigorous game of cricket the previous day. As each pair in the team had to check the results of the others, this team was at a disadvantage. During this practical part of the challenge, judges awarded marks for good attention to safety procedures such as:

  • keeping benches tidy
  • mopping up spills
  • wearing eye protection
  • tying back long hair while using a bunsen burner
  • reporting anything that was broken to the technicians and clearing it away.

We also looked at whether teams were working collaboratively in pairs, as suggested, and at the amount of teacher input they needed.  Gradually, the activity settled into one of maximum concentration as the pupils separated the salts into their metal and non-metal parts. I have written elsewhere about ‘flow’, the theory where the doing of something is its own reward (see Primary G&T Update, issue 13, May 2007), and this began to happen in the laboratory as the pupils endeavoured to find the solution to the problem. Teachers drifted to the sides as the teams began to need them less. Moving around, I listened to their discussions: pupils began to rethink what they were doing and repeat an activity in order to correct it; safety procedures were carefully observed; results were sifted and reports written for the final judging of the task. The pupils’ reports, which we looked at later, were masterpieces of forensic science worthy of a PD James novel. Most schools had identified the chief suspects correctly, and those who hadn’t had given good arguments for their choice and supported them with evidence from the experiments. During the lunch hour, the judges compared notes and used a marking scheme to come up with agreed conclusions about the three winners of the first challenge. All of the reports were well written, showing that you can be both a scientist and a writer!

Mr Spock in a sweat The second challenge was called Cool It and was taken from a booklet called The Great Egg Race produced by the Salters’ Institute. The Starship Enterprise has a problem; the dilithium crystals are about to overheat and a chemical reaction is required to cool them down. The crystals work best at exactly 10.5 degrees centigrade; any hotter and they will start to break down, any colder and they will start to malfunction.

Using different chemicals, the pupils had to devise a method for reducing the temperature of the water. In order to win, they had to devise a method to get closest to the target temperature and then demonstrate their method to the judges. Again safety procedures had to be observed. The atmosphere in the afternoon session was very different from the morning experience – much more relaxed. I think that one of the reasons for this was that most of the schools’ teachers were not present, leaving only a few adults in attendance (three judges and one or two technicians). I asked some of the teams whether they preferred working without their teachers watching and the answer was a unanimous ‘yes!’ – ‘unless we’re struggling,’ said one of the girls. At no time, however, did I sense that any of them were struggling. A number of the teams had to try and try again, but generally their patience was rewarded and they achieved the desired result. Gentle guidance was all that seemed necessary, even with the EBD group where one of the teachers had remained with the group throughout the afternoon.

Thinking it through The pupil reports often indicated the thinking processes by which they arrived at their results. This is from one group: ‘We worked out that the more ingredients the bigger the reaction so the cooler the temperature. We mixed the dry ingredients and then added the water. We found out by trial and error that the reaction worked better in a polystyrene cup, and the temperature was lowest in the polystyrene cup.’

With another group, who were disappointed with their results for the Cool It challenge, I discussed the importance of the process rather than the product. I had recently been on a Belle Wallace TASC course where she emphasised the importance of ‘rethinking’ rather than ‘learning from mistakes’. This links with the idea of ‘flow’, where the activity itself is its own reward. If we placed more emphasis on the thinking processes by which we solve problems, rather than being the first to ‘get it right’, then fewer pupils would become disaffected as a result of their perceived failure. 

Prizes Everyone involved felt that the day had been very successful. Each individual student had been fully involved in the tasks, making decisions about final judgements very difficult. Eventually, after some discussion, we decided to award prizes to six of the nine schools which had taken part in the Festival of Chemistry. These were sums of £25, £50 and £100 which were given to the three most successful schools in each challenge. In addition the three schools which received no awards were praised for their teamwork, their persistence and their calm, relaxed manner during the tasks.

The day finished when Peter Sutton of Lealands High School in Luton showed the pupils the most enormous stick insect I had ever seen, and a snake which he draped around his neck. On being asked by one of the pupils if she could touch the snake he invited them all down to the front for a closer look at the creatures. At this, all 36 surged forward and were able to view them at first hand. Hands-on science! This was a fitting end to a most remarkable day.

Further information The festivals are held every two years as a ‘celebration’ of chemistry. They are part of an initiative organised by the Salters’ Institute of Industrial Chemistry to make chemistry more visible, more interesting and more attractive to pupils.

To obtain more information about the Salters’ challenges and more details of the experiments undertaken, contact: Michelle Milne, festivals administrator, the Salters’ Institute, tel: 020 7628 5962 ext 224,  www.saltersinstitute.co.uk


Adey, P, Shayer, M, and Yates, C (1989) Thinking Science, Macmillan Csikszentmihalyi, M (2002) Flow, Rider Hastings, S (2003) ‘Thinking Skills’, TES 23 May Leyland, P (2007) ‘Every Child Has the Potential to Become a Gifted and Talented Pupil’, Primary G&T Update, issue 13, May Shayer, M, and Adey, P (1981) Towards a Science of Science Teaching, Heinemann Wallace, B, et al, Thinking Skills and Problem Solving: An Inclusive Approach, David Fulton Publishers

Peter Leyland has over 30 years’ teaching experience and works as a G&T coordinator and lecturer on G&T issues. He has recently been awarded a research grant from NAGTY to investigate the provision of sufficient challenge for more able pupils in mixed-ability groupings.