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Fields of discovery

A new prize rewards inspiring strategies and excellence in teaching science. Douglas Blane reports

Rolls-Royce is renowned for aircraft engines, luxury cars and submarine propulsion. Few would associate the high-tech company with straw-backed chairs and wildlife.

However, the Rolls-Royce Science Prize that was launched last summer is less about advanced technology and more about science teaching.

So entries have been welcomed from teachers who have inspirational ideas in any field of science.

"I was a bit surprised to hear our project would be accepted," says John Moar, the headteacher of Firth Primary in Orkney. "It is very much about biology and the environment."

Recently his senior pupils have been learning about conservation, natural farming and wildlife through ploughing and planting a two-acre field near the school.

"The children and I came up with the idea of sowing half the field with a special mixture of plants to attract birds," he says. "So now we have phacelia, a lovely blue flower that attracts insects, quinoa, which produces lots of seeds, and mustard and kale, which are tall plants to provide the birds with cover."

Black oats, a traditional crop grown especially for its straw, which is used in the celebrated Orkney chairs, were planted in the other half of the field.

"We want the children to learn about the environment and our agricultural heritage," says Mr Moar, who has been running science projects for many years. "It is also an enterprise project, so they made a bit of money selling the straw and the seed."

The Rolls-Royce Science Prize is aimed at any teachers of pupils aged 3 to 19, and associated adults, in the UK and Ireland who have inspirational science teaching proposals. Entries for the inaugural competition closed last Friday. Three teams in each pupil age group (3 to 11, 11 to 16 and 16 to 19) will now be shortlisted and then given financial support and a specialist mentor to implement their proposals. Final judging a year from now will award winners and runners-up in each category with pound;15,000 and pound;10,000 to spend on science teaching.

"The mentors will come from over 20 associate organisations," says project manager Emma Medd-Sygrove. "So if it's about physics, the school will get a mentor from the Institute of Physics.

"A typical entry might be a little school in East London struggling to get pupils interested in biology and wanting to create a wildlife area and a pond. Another might involve English and drama teachers using plays and poetry to help make the language of science more accessible."

Entries from Scotland include Girvan Academy in South Ayrshire, which has developed a cyberphysics website to engage pupils in science, St Leonard's in St Andrews, Fife, which has created a science newspaper and a balance to measure the mass of a housefly, and Lockerbie Academy, in Dumfries and Galloway, which has produced a mural of science in society and is staging a series of physics lectures for Einstein Year.

"All the proposals we receive and accept will be uploaded on to a database so that teachers can see everything that has been submitted," says Ms Medd-Sygrove. "Over time this database will get better and better and should become a fabulous source of good ideas for teachers of science."

The next stage of Firth Primary's project, says Mr Moar, will be to plant another field with young willows. "We will be using these to make baskets, charcoal, living sculptures and even ovens for baking bread," he explains.

"We will cover the field with a special membrane that keeps grass and weeds down, and lets us plant the willow cuttings through it.

"Children get really enthusiastic about this kind of project. They love finding things out. They are natural explorers and experimenters, and that is the absolute heart of what science is about."; Emma Medd-Sygrove, tel 020 7227

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