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The Royal Observatory in Edinburgh is leading one of four consortia designing courses and materials to help 5-14 science teachers. Douglas Blane reports

It can be hard to breathe on Edinburgh's Blackford Hill. It's not the altitude or the panoramic views of the city. It's the presence of the Royal Observatory.

The collection of old buildings and telescopes, scientists and engineers and a library of 15,000 items, including many of the greatest treasures in the history of science, is simply breathtaking.

There are first editions of the works by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton that laid the foundations of our understanding of the world. One description of them by staff as "the Rembrandts and Picassos of science" is an understatement.

But it is not just history that makes the Royal Observatory a wonderful place for teachers' professional development. It combines leading-edge science (such as last year's discovery of a planetary system with similarities to ours around the star Vega) and education. This year it has launched teachers' 5-14 science workshops.

As a component of the Scottish Executive's Improving Science Education 5-14 professional development programme, the South East Earth and Space project is designed to benefit from the collaboration of organisations with a wide range of science expertise, from education and research to applications, communication and the impact of science on society.

SEES, the Royal Observatory-led consortium that developed the workshops, also comprises Our Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh University, the Scottish Earth Science Education Forum, and the Edinburgh, Scottish Borders and three Lothian education authorities.

Collaboration among three of the partners had already produced high-quality teachers' workshops and resources for 5-14, providing a solid foundation for widening the scope of the project.

Three primary and secondary teachers were seconded to develop the courses, pilot the workshops and train the local trainers - five teachers from each of the five education authorities. These in turn will run professional development sessions for other teachers in the south-east and beyond.

The workshops are aimed at the Earth and space attainment outcome of 5-14 science. They deal with the sun, moon and stars (P1-P3), Earth and its resources (P4-P6), and model of matter (P7-S2).

The courses provide learning and teaching strategies as well as knowledge and understanding. Lessons for achieving the 5-14 attainment targets are modelled using resources the teachers can take away.

Based on best practice identified by school inspectors, similar workshops with other focuses are being developed by three other consortia around the country, in Tayside (living things and the processes of life), and the north-east and west of Scotland (all three science attainment outcomes).

John Richardson, director of the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre, who directs the ISE 5-14 project on behalf of the Scottish Executive, says of the courses produced by these consortia: "Collaboration with industry and research institutes makes the science relevant and up-to-date. It is delivered by credible practitioners, familiar with the classroom and the curriculum, through practical workshops."

Each organisation in the SEES consortium is represented on the management group, explains Dan Hillier, the project manager. It can therefore call upon wide experience while remaining small enough to work closely with the teachers on the project team.

"The authorities tell us a big strength of the project is that we've been getting input and guidance from them, so they were able to make sure what we were producing matched what their teachers were looking for," he says.

Ron Clarke, a seconded Borders primary teacher, says feedback from the workshop pilot sessions has been very positive. The motivating effect of contact with science and scientists is one factor. Another is that the latest research on making science teaching effective, interesting and relevant has been taken into account.

"We have built in the latest thinking on how children learn science best," he says. "We don't just talk about raising attainment; we give teachers specific techniques for doing so. So each lesson deals explicitly with formative assessment, questions and answers, lesson beginnings and endings and science misconceptions.

"Take the seasons. It's quite common to believe it is cold in winter because the sun is further away. We use a light source and a blow-up Earth to demonstrate the real cause is the inclination of the Earth's axis.

"Young people get all sorts of strange ideas about how the world works. You have to understand these and demonstrate what really happens before they can progress."

Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, tel 0131 668 8406 Hillier, e-mail

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