Chain reaction boosts science

Eleanor Caldwell

Induction days at secondary school are as much a part of the final term in primary as school shows and sports. Facing them with excited trepidation, Primary 7 pupils often return with a surprisingly blase notion of how easy it's all going to be.

But few secondary teachers would deny that induction offers only a superficial view of the subjects, its main value being as an introduction to the culture and geography of the secondary school. With the development of the 5-14 curriculum, there is a need for more liaison on a subject-by-subject basis between primary and secondary schools.

One area causing particular concern is science. Since the inception of the 5-14 environmental studies programme in which science is now embedded, the level of knowledge and ability among pupils starting secondary has varied considerably. Primary schools are poorly resourced with specialist equipment, and many primary teachers, by their own admission, still have little confidence in the present methods of teaching science and technology.

One authority that has been trying to tackle this problem is North Ayrshire, which in June 1996 provided funding for four science projects, one of which was based at the 740-pupil St Andrew's Academy in Saltcoats and its four cluster primaries.

For seven weeks, 130 P7 pupils from the four primaries attended secondary school one morning a week, for classes in science, computing and technology. Co-operative teaching gave the primary teacher the chance to work for the first time in practical classes of only 15 pupils. It also gave their secondary colleagues a new perspective on the difficulties of teaching practical subjects in primary classes of 30, and helped them understand the pupils' often fragmented coverage of some key features in the curriculum.

Lessons about Earth and Space focused on aspects of water, such as evaporation and condensation. Careful groundwork was carried out, so that a dovetailed approach to work started in P7 could link the development of investigative skills to hands-on familiarisation with specialist equipment in the secondary school laboratory. Using an existing document, "Let's Investigate Detergents'' (Renfrew Division 5-14 Science Project 1), science teachers Tony DaPrato, Peter Timmons and Eugene MacMahon were able to discuss, carry out and assess simple experiments with the group.

Pupils then benefited from a cross-curricular link in which they were able to take the results of their experiments to the computing department and write them up in the form of spreadsheets and graphs. This was so successful that computing teachers John Walsh and Douglas Johnston have devised an S1 computing course as a result.

Senior adviser Joan McMath says the project presented an ideal opportunity for future curricular planning of the P7 science programme in environmental studies, and hopes that it will lead to greater standardisation of primary science resources.

The inclusion of technology in the project provided another curriculum area in which P7 pupils generally have little experience. As technical teacher Kent Alston explains, in constructing a wooden toy lorry, pupils became familiar with tools and classroom equipment and, perhaps more importantly, learned basic classroom safety procedures, minimising the need for teaching these in the first days of S1.

The response from the P7 pupils at St Peter's was enthusiastic, reflecting the success of both the curricular and social aims of the project. They were excited at getting to touch laboratory equipment and at the prospect of "having a computer each''. They particularly appreciated the fact that the secondary teachers treated them "like young adults''.

The project cost Pounds 7,000, Pounds 4,000 of which was met by St Andrew's Academy, Pounds 1,000 by the primaries, and Pounds 2,000 by North Ayrshire. The bulk of it went into teaching cover. Not only was the project costly, but it relied on staff being prepared to lose teaching time to a cover teacher. Primary and secondary staff felt more time was needed for joint preparation and the standardisation of material.

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Eleanor Caldwell

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