Dowsing with wolves

James Williams

What could you do with a whole week on science? James Williams's school took the opportunity to dispel a few myths.

All rockets need a combustible fuel, dowsing doesn't work, and wolves are dangerous animals that eat people. True or false?

Part of the job of a teacher is to challenge misconceptions in children and to understand what their views are on the world in which we live. By understanding the way our pupils think we can take them forward and allow them to shift their own misconceptions to a more scientifically correct model, one that will sometimes challenge even their deepest held, if incorrect, convictions.

In July of this year, The Beacon School in Banstead held its own science week for its Year 9 pupils with this aim in mind - the rest of the school was engaged in other activities, with Year 7 on European Awareness Week, Year 8 at camp, Year 12 on industry awareness and Year 10 on work experience. For one week Year 9's complete timetable was suspended and all the activities were based on science related topics.

The Fun in Science (FiS) Week was shaped to meet a number of aims: raising the profile of science within the school, promoting physics as a subject, bringing the fun back into science, challenging pupils to examine their own conceptions of everyday science.

The activities, laid on by staff and outside agencies, were designed to engage the pupils in discovery science that had a distinct relevance to everyday life. The South Eastern Electricity Board, for instance, provided a number of activities to show the links between science and technology.

A visit by its mains fault-finding team allowed pupils to compare the modern way of locating buried mains cables, by using schematic diagrams of the mains feed to the school and complex detecting equipment, to the old method of dowsing. With the sophisticated electronics they traced the buried cable along the road from the sub station into the school.

"Could any of the science staff explain how it is possible to detect buried cables using two bent pieces of copper wire?" asked one of the pupils Of course not. But after the week one group developed an interesting hypothesis. They decided that because electric cables generated a weak magnetic field, this set up a minuscule current in the wires, generating further magnetic fields around them that caused the wires to cross as opposing poles attracted each other.

We agreed the hypothesis had merit and may just turn it into an Sc1 investigation next year. Whether it is true or not is besides the point, the key here is that pupils' ideas were challenged and this prompted good science. Some of them believed in dowsing, others did not. Their experiences were varied: some could detect the cables, one group even managed to trace an underground waste water pipe (no theories on this one yet!).

During this 90-minute session the pupils were exposed to some sophisticated technology, some unexplained phenomena and learned a lot about the passage of electricity from power station to homeschool and the huge variety of cables that carry that electricity.

Be under no illusions, devoting a week to science activities and branding it as a fun week is ambitious. Dedicated staff with almost limitless amounts of energy are needed as well as variety in the activities, the key to averting boredom. One of the highlights of the week was the visit, from the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, of three live wolves.

Had I lost my mind? Was I really going to bring dangerous wild animals to the school? Aren't they bloodthirsty, pack animals that hunt? Don't they attack humans and kill them for pleasure? Won't they howl and howl? All these fears were voiced. Another chance, then, to challenge our assumptions, this time about wolf behaviour.

The idea was to let experts in wolf handling show how they really behave. There are, for instance, no known attacks on humans in areas where wolves exist in the wild. They would not normally choose to attack an animal bigger than themselves unless threatened.

I admit I was nervous when the wolves arrived, but in no time they became the centre of attraction and caused no alarm. In fact, the sight of a wolf being patted by eager, enthusiastic pupils was marvellous. Some myths were dispelled and pupils were alerted to the relationship between Canis lupus and Canis familiaris and why the former would not be a suitable pet.

Other, less spectacular activities during the week looked at how science helps in the detection of crime; how to make a rocket from a lemonade bottle, a bicycle pump and some water; how to make and test long lasting bubbles; a parachute challenge; catapults; and how to write about science in a plain and simple way by producing our own science magazine, bringing creative writing and information technology into the subject.

The activities were followed up in science lessons and hopefully will have spurred some pupils on to challenge and question the science they are about to embark on for their GCSE. It certainly will help in the investigative side.

As teachers we cannot hope to dispel all misconceptions in science, or sustain the intense level of activity in FiS week every lesson, but the pupils are now aware that science does not have to be confined to boring fact learning and that there are some elements of their own thinking that need to be challenged.

James Williams is head of the science faculty at The Beacon School, Banstead, Surrey.

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