The government says that learning science should be more engaging and exciting. Crispin Andrews investigates their claim and questions how science can be made more fun for pupils

Government ministers are currently demanding that science must be made more engaging and exciting for primary school pupils. As if teachers have been deliberately trying to bore children in science lessons for the last 20 years! In announcing funding of £140 million over three years to further develop both mathematics and science, schools minister Jim Knight says that he wants to see lessons that are lively with more ‘flash bang’ excitement to bring subjects to life whilst maintaining academic rigour. ‘I want more science in action in the classroom,’ he says. ‘As well as learning the periodic table students must be able to experience the excitement of practical experiments.’

But, while through this strategy efforts will be redoubled – mainly through the science learning centres and specialist school networks – to help teachers new and old to update and improve their subject knowledge and teaching practice; the strategy does not deal with the significant reasons why science at primary schools can easily become a dry, paper-based exercise.

Curriculum time constraints
SATs require children to know scientific facts – and the more the better. With crucial league table points to secure, teachers can be put in a position where they must prioritise short-term goals for schools over and above the long-term development of children’s interest and proficiency in science. General curriculum pressures on top of this mean teachers often don’t have enough time for the more engaging aspects of scientific investigation.

The current system requires children to ‘know stuff’ rather than to know how to ‘find stuff out’ and this is fine when the perimeter fence of a child’s scientific world is determined by what is and isn’t contained within the primary national curriculum document. But this is an artificial boundary outside which exists a swirling mass of particulars, possibilities and potential. A content-centred approach to science does little to help children develop the sort of enquiring minds necessary to operate successfully within this world, let alone push its parameters as the scientists of tomorrow.

Lack of equipment
Similarly many schools do not have enough working up-to-date equipment to deliver science in the sort of consistently practical way government now requires, or the funding to put this situation right. Again, this can lead to an emphasis on teacher demonstration over individual and group practical activity.

Health and safety
The imperative towards ‘end-result’ curricular science and lack of funding for specialist equipment is accentuated by the oppressively stifling health and safety policies schools have to operate within. It is much easier to control a worksheet or teacher demonstration. Everybody stays on-task throughout, achieves their objective and no one gets hurt. Sadly with this approach – neither does anyone learn to think for themselves in a way that would enable them to apply the same techniques to new and unfamiliar challenges in the future.

A way forward
According to Dr Carol Blyth, a secondary school science teacher who spends two days a week on outreach work with primaries, there are ways around the problem. She urges teachers to make contact with their local science college, or if there is not one nearby, a local secondary school science department. ’Even if they do not provide an outreach service themselves they will have equipment that can be borrowed, facilities that may be used – particularly when older students are on study leave during the holidays – and specialist expertise that can be tapped into.’

Carol, who has worked at Aylesbury Grammar School for over 25 years, always ensures that her sessions in primaries are practical, with children being encouraged to find things out for themselves and in their own way. ‘I have most requests to deliver lessons on electricity and forces,’ she says.

Lighting up science
Electricity and forces are exactly the sort of science that can become dry if delivered in the abstract and wholly on paper. However, give children the chance to find out for themselves or, better still, add some sort of purposeful context to what they are doing, and not only can the relevant facts be learned, but they can be done so in a way that provides the level of enjoyment and quality of experience that will encourage children to retain and want to extend their knowledge.

Children might enjoy making a bulb light up or a buzzer buzz, but is there any real point to this? On the other hand, there are plenty of occasions – historical, contemporary or imaginary – when secret coded messages might need to be sent from person to person. What better way to bring a lesson on circuits to life than by coming up with a way to outwit an enemy or communicate with a friend in a ‘language’ known to only the two of you? It is still necessary for the children to know how to complete the circuit, to make the light brighter and dimmer or the buzzer softer and louder. But it gives children a more compelling reason to want to do so.

When Carol Blyth conducts experiments like this she discusses possible methods, gets children to make suggestions as to the direction that they might take the process and then challenges them to find out if the idea gets them where they wanted to go. ‘It’s important children report back in one way or another so that – whether the experiment went well or went wrong – they can understand why and what to do to apply the successful method again in the future, or to alter it in order to be more successful the next time.’

Making mistakes
Science is not just about getting the right answer. Children can often learn as much from mistakes that are made, particularly through thinking of ways to put them right. When learning about friction, for instance, why not create a humorous character – maybe a comedy  factory owner – who, fed up with their warehouse being burgled, has created a ‘car trap’ on the road at the bottom of the hill on which the warehouse is situated to impede the getaway of any would-be thieves. There is a security guard on site, but as his car is not so fast, he needs a way of catching up with the thieves before they disappear off into the country lanes that surround the factory. Unfortunately, of course, the factory owner is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and tries out a whole range of materials that don’t have the desired effect. Glass that sends the thieves spinning off the road and his company into a heavy law suit on health and safety grounds, straw that encourages the chickens in the farm next door to make nests all over the road and a bed of nails which puncture the tyres in so many of his delivery vans and the tyres of his workers’ cars that business grinds to a halt.

In this scenario, the typical ‘car trap experiment’ performed in schools all over the country, has new meaning as groups of youngsters playing the role of security companies bidding for a lucrative contract come up with the best surface and design that would inhibit any potential getaway but allow business to run smoothly. It also allows the science to become a related part of work going on in other curriculum areas, rather than a stand-alone activity.

Importance of context
Liz Lawrence, an advisory science teacher for science and technology for Barking and Dagenham Borough Council and the chair of the Primary Science Committee with the ASE (Association for Science Education) believes that creating a context makes practical science more engaging.

She talks of lessons where finding out which everyday material makes the best thermal insulator has become a way to help Red Riding Hood take a flask of hot tea across the forest to her grandma without burning her hands; tension has been investigated as children design a catapult for Horrid Henry or some of the more disagreeable clientele at the virtual Bulworth High School. Liz Lawrence says: ‘Sometimes children assume the stretchiest material will make the best catapult when in fact it is the elastic to which you have to impart the greatest force that will in turn project the catapulted object with the most force in the opposite direction.’

She urges teachers to be more concerned with good quality scientific process and less with getting the ‘right’ results. ‘It is important to have an end point in mind but to remember that there are lots of different ways children can get there and many other interesting things they can discover on the way. It might take a little longer – but the children are learning to make decisions, think things through and find stuff out. They are learning how to apply their knowledge, work independently and take control of the direction of their learning.’

In conclusion…
The demands to make science more exciting are laudable, but the government needs to address some of the funding and health and safety obstacles before teachers can truly allow their creativity to flow and encourage scientists of the future. This is not to say that teachers cannot find ways around the obstacles – there are hundreds of teachers already doing everything they can to make science more engaging and ‘flash bang’.