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Get real;Science

Refresher courses are taking science teachers to the forefront of their discipline, writes Carolyn O'Grady.

It's not often that science teachers get a chance to see what is going on at the cutting edge of their subject, and to meet the people working there. But this is just what a group of about 150 teachers did at the end of July. During an intensive week of lectures and visits to industrial and research sites, they were treated to a glimpse of the present and future of science, not in theoretical terms, but through example and lectures from experts.

The teachers were taking part in a week of summer residential courses for A-level science, organised by the Goldsmiths' Company, a City of London livery company.

Six courses were on offer this year: on the water industry; astrophysics and medical physics; complementary and integrated medicine; energy and the environment; and a state of the art course which looked at the Institute of Physics' plans to revitalise post-16 physics and included a visit to the European Particle Physics' laboratory in Geneva to gain an insight into the most recent research.

"We want to give teachers a wider spectrum than just their subject," says Donald Scott, course director on the water industry course, during a visit to the Maidenhead Flood Relief Project. "We hope that those who take the courses disseminate this new knowledge to pupils and other teachers. And that the fact that they have seen these things livens up their performance in the classroom and earns them more respect from students."

Earlier that week he had taken around 20 people to visit the British Airports Authority to see their water treatments and reclamation plant, the Walton-on-Thames water treatment works and the Institute of Hydrology in Wallingford. They attended lectures on water-borne diseases; the pollution monitoring programme for the Newbury bypass and water recycling at the Millennium Dome.

The Maidenhead Flood Relief project is a pound;75 million scheme designed to save large areas of the Thames Valley from major floods, which occur on average every 65 years (the last one was in l947). It involves creating a 10-mile channel - a man-made river - which traverses motorways and railways, and incorporates sluices to deal with different levels of flooding.

Visits to different sites and talks from the project manager and Environmental Agency conservation manager took in a range of disciplines, such as engineering and chemistry (as part of the creation of a tunnel under a railway line, the engineers froze the grounds by pumping concentrated calcium chloride into it); biology and ecology (pains have been taken to protect wildlife and to encourage the return of species that had long ago left the area); archaeology (the project has unearthed ancient sites which were attracting much interest from archaeologists); and politics (it took 10 years to get the scheme through local and national planning processes).

As the course progressed, teachers could see more and more clearly the links between the subjects. "It gives you a well-integrated tapestry - we're meeting a lot of people producing high quality stuff," says Chris Buckled of Kings School, Macclesfield.

The course wasn't designed to fit snugly into the curriculum and the classroom. If teachers thought they were going to get some whiz-bang experiments to use in their lessons, they would have been disappointed. Except for the Institute of Physics' course where the lectures and visits were coupled with practical advice and strategies to help introduce the subject of particle physics, the emphasis was on broadening the teachers' perspective and making links between what they taught and the wider world.

"All sorts of disciplines come together. You see something from so many different perspectives," says Andy Rylatt, a physics teacher from St Albans School in Hertfordshire.

"You realise that what you're teaching is related to the real world and you can convey that," says Joanne Hamill, a chemistry teacher from Upton-by-Chester County High School, near Chester. "It's better to teach from experiment and I know I'll refer to it a lot."

"Some of the best teaching comes when you tell stories. It makes it come alive," says biology teacher Chris Buckland. "It's not only my own subject knowledge which has improved. I'll bring back information on, for example, careers. I know a lot more about what people are doing now."

Teachers also commented on the value of meeting other teachers, who like themselves were motivated and eager for new ideas. Bar talk and discussions over meals sparked off ideas and gave them a chance to bounce new ideas off each other.

Teachers, it was agreed, need more of this sort of thing: "A school or authority could never do in-service training on such a scale as this," says Joanne Hamill.

Bookings for the Science for Society courses are taken on receipt of a completed application form. As demand outstrips supply, teachers are advised to book early. All applications will be acknowledged and, if successful, a pound;25 deposit will be required. The Assistant Clerk, The Goldsmiths' Company, Goldsmiths' Hall, Foster Lane, London EC2V 6BN. Tel: 0171 606 7010. Fax: 0171 606 1511

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