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A field day for science

Carol Bennett looks at how US courses support non-specialists. Some are born to science, some achieve it and some have it thrust upon them.

Since the introduction of the national curriculum, primary teachers have had a mandate to deliver a science curriculum. For those without a science background, this has led to much anxiety and a lack of confidence in the classroom.

In 1994 a group of teachers and scientists in Norfolk launched the teacher scientist network (TSN) to forge links between them. The TSN aims to enhance science education and to address non-specialists' anxiety about the subject. The TSN has more than 50 one-to-one partnerships between scientists and teachers, many from the primary phase.

This year, with funding from the Gatsby Foundation, the TSN sent four delegates to the US to look at American partnership models.

Ten years ago the Americans shared our concerns about the lack of science literacy among school leavers, but set out to tackle the problems without the imposition of a national curriculum. Partnerships between scientists and educators have sought to support science teaching, raise its profile, and ensure in-service training for teachers.

Wisconsin has become a leading state in science education, not least because it has a variety of well-established partnerships. The state's academy of science, arts and letters has founded many of these initiatives. Many provide for personal development, others give teachers experience of one area of science at a level relevant to the age group they teach.

Field Experiences for Science Teachers (FEST) is one of the former. Founded eight years ago, and funded by taxpayers' money via the National Science Foundation, FEST began with private funding and six teachers from one school. Today the programme operates one week in eight for 10 months of the year.

FEST provides exactly what it says it will, a field experience. For one week teachers are out in the Wisconsin countryside, looking at rocks and plants. If this happens during term-time, supply cover is paid for. The teacher receives a stipend of $60 (Pounds 45) a day and has the chance to gain three credits towards a masters degree. Up to 24 teachers may be on a field week, but they will be drawn from no more than six schools.

If small beginnings and teamwork have been hallmarks of these courses, then a role model for science teaching has been their crowning glory. Teachers are encouraged to find answers for themselves and construct their body of knowledge.

The teachers who attend these courses are mainly non-specialists who need content knowledge and confidence. Many arrive expecting the resident expert to give them all the answers and are surprised when he doesn't. When finding a plant that a teacher doesn't recognise it seems natural to ask "What is this?" But it's a little unnerving to be asked in return "What do you think?"

In this way a role model for many aspects of education is provided. The focus is taken off teaching and placed on facilitating learning.

Other staff development initiatives have taken this model and used it to enable teachers to gain confidence in an area of science that they must teach.

During the summer, Wisconsin Academy Staff Development Initiative provides week-long courses covering subjects as diverse as space science and keeping creatures in the classroom. Teachers get to grips with a subject, gaining confidence with apparatus and anticipating children's questions.

At the end the course, they have a kit of materials which provides an eight-week module of lesson. As with the FEST weeks, teachers attend in teams and so return to school with the reassurance that they can turn to other staff if they have problems.

The American models provide examples of diversity of partnerships. Although the one-to-one situations continue to have their place, other possibilities must be looked at.

In a world that grows ever more complex; where our body of knowledge is so vast, we need teamwork. Perhaps above all, those of us within education need to create a culture in which it is OK to admit that you don't know some things. But this is never easy. If science is learning about the world in which we live, we must acknowledge that there are things that we don't know. We are all on a life-long path of learning and that includes teachers as well as pupils.

* Carol Bennett is a reception class teacher and science curriculum co-ordinator in a Norwich first school. She sits on the steering group of the Teacher Scientist Network and was the primary phase representative on the US visit.

The TSN can be contacted via the co-ordinator Frank Chennell at the John Innes Centre, Norwich Research Park, Colney, Norwich NR4 7UH. Tel: 01603 452571.

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