Linking schools with industry always sounds easy, but schools are often inward-looking. Roger Frost discovers a pack which helps them to come out of their shells and bring real-life scientists and engineers into their classrooms. We make great statements about schools linking with industry, but schools are actually very insular organisations," reflects head teacher Kathy Harper. Her school, Hobletts Manor Junior in Hemel Hempstead, has made some important steps off their "island" by inviting an engineer from BP, a major local industry, to work with them on their science and technology projects.
Right now, retired BP engineer Mike Allen is demonstrating a device which can magically make a cup of warm water cold. It's a "heat exchanger" he tells a small Year 6 group, showing a very low-tech device made of mere plastic bottles and tubing, and it works.
They are discussing not just how it works, or how they could test how well it works, but how the whole contraption fits together, bringing in ideas about structures and joints.
What has helped catalyse this school-industry bond is the BP-sponsored Exciting Science and Engineering folder, a pack of nine units each showing the importance of science and engineering. For example, in one unit, "Cool it", children see the connections between the simple recipe for an everyday chemical and that for chocolate mousse. They investigate different ways to cool things, like stirring and blowing and they build the heat exchanger and test it with thermometers.
As the outsider, Mike Allen is very sensitive and adaptable. When he made contact with the school, he discussed the Year 6 work in progress with the teacher, and sounded out some activities that would integrate well.
For his role, he might set the scene for the work, or help children design fair tests or use his engineering experience to add a real edge to construction ideas, such as how to work in triangles.
All the units were produced by schools in Humberside and the Chemical Industry Education Centre in York. They can be bought separately too, so you might choose from ideas such as making a tea machine, keeping take-away food hot or selecting materials to make a hat. All are designed to involve an engineer in some way, though in certain ones the need is more obvious: such as when pupils build a wind generator or make a greenhouse and try to control its temperature. Single units might seem a bit pricey, though your first one comes with a large ring binder and introduction.
The "Cool it" unit is for older pupils, while "Shadow Play" is for pupils aged seven to nine. Here they try to sort out the problems of a shadow puppet theatre where somehow, things are not right. So they investigate ways to make better shadows: they try different materials for making puppets and they try different light sources at different distances. They also try different puppet mechanisms for making their puppets, using levers, scissor-actions, pulleys and string as they go on to make a theatre and act out a story or poem.
Over 20-30 pages you will see how the unit links with the curriculum and topics such as Festivals or Machines, and you will find a backgrounder on the science principles. Then, of course, you get a guide to the activities with not just practical details but strategies for differentiation, thoughts on investigating and unusually helpful assessment notes for this. This needs tweaking to match the latest national curriculum but the authors have made themselves very useful throughout. For example, there is even a short summary for your engineer, showing where he or she might become involved.
Each unit takes from three to six hours of class time. Each challenges children to think about what they are doing perhaps the only person who is spoon-fed is the teacher. No complaints here, although children pay a price for their fun this thinking business can be hard.
The materials can happily stand alone, but Kathy Harper points to the value of using an expert: "The engineer provides support in areas where teachers feel that bit less confident. They can take children that bit further, broadening their perspective, and take them into realms we couldn't even think of, let alone tackle, because we just don't have the scientific background. And it's good to have someone whose brains we can pick."
The BPES catalogue and a similar set for ages 11-14 are also available. Schools can get in contact with engineers via their local industry or through Engineering Council Regional Organisations, 10 Maltravers Street, London WC2R 3ER. Telephone: 0171 240 7891Institution of Chemical Engineers Schools Liaison Unit, 165-171 Railway Terrace, Rugby, CV21 3HQ. Telephone: 01788 578214Science and Technology Regional Organisations, 76 Portland Place, London W1N 4AA. Telephone: 0171 278 2468School Curriculum Industry Partnership, London House, 68 Upper Richmond Road, London SW15 2RP Telephone: 0181 875 9944