Life, the universe and all

In the run-up to National Science Week, John Cairney opens five pages on science developments in Scottish schools.

The UK's Science Year began with not so much a fanfare as a loud thump. When Jack McConnell, then education minister, joined 200 schoolchildren at the Glasgow Science Centre last September in a "giant jump", along with other groups across the four home nations, there was a seismologist on hand to record the effect. Organisers of Science Year in Scotland are confident that the long term impact on young people will be significant, if not seismic.

The Scottish Executive Education Department has overall responsibility for the year's activities here and all events and initiatives are being co-ordinated by Setpointscotland. Fiona Selkirk, the national co-ordinator, says the aim is to make science-related subjects more interesting and accessible to young people and increase public appreciation of science and technology as major driving forces in today's society and the future.

"We recognise that there is a big falling off in interest and enthusiasm for science in the early years of secondary school," she says, "and we hope that by targeting some of our activities at pupils of that age, more of them will be persuaded to stick with science and technology. Scotland's economic future depends on producing a greater number of skilled scientists and technologists."

Last year the Scottish Executive announced project funding of pound;8 million over two years to promote science teaching in Scottish schools and to support a number of projects, including a roadshow by television presenter Johnny Ball, who has popularised maths and science, and a sci-fun roadshow aimed at S2 pupils. Learning and Teaching Scotland was asked to produce proposals to tackle key issues relating to science in schools, particularly in the 5-14 programme. And in January the Executive distributed a further pound;5 million to local authorities on a pro rata basis to enhance science equipment and resources.

Next Friday is the start of National Science Week (March 8-17), with events across the country ranging from Making Waves, a roadshow highlighting energy issues, in Aberdeen to Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei Visit Falkirk, to Stone Age Survival Skills in Dumfries and Galloway.

"Everyone is making a special effort for National Science Week," says Liz Robertson, regional officer and roadshow organiser for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, "because this is Science Year."

Stuart Farmer, head of physics at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen and a former chair of the Association for Science Education (ASE) Scotland, welcomes the concept of Science Year but warns against expectations that big events will have a lasting impact on children. "I am sure that Science Year will help but I would like to see more core investment in education," he says.

He is also concerned about what he regards as a lack of adequate planning. "Science Year is a good opportunity to raise awareness of science among the public but I think it would have had greater impact if planning in Scotland had started earlier."

A principal teacher of physics in a secondary school in Fife, while backing the targeting of resources for schools, especially improving equipment for S1 and S2 pupils, has urged the organisers to "get things to schools" rather than require pupils to travel to science centres and other outside events.

"There is so much bureaucracy involved now in arranging trips, from getting permission, booking buses, arranging insurance and cover for staff, that many teachers are discouraged from taking on the task," he says.

The Edinburgh International Science Festival can help with that. It is taking 18 workshops to 230 schools between January and May as part of its touring schools programme.

Some of the projects planned by the Scottish co-ordinators may also go some way towards addressing his concerns. In addition to creating a Setpointscotland website with a database of events, Intel digital microscopes have been distributed to every secondary school and all schools will receive a series of five CD-Roms produced especially for Science Year by the ASE. Further resources to help teachers deliver the science curriculum will be identified and an international conference in Edinburgh this autumn is planned.

Ms Selkirk says her team is trying to ensure there is something for everyone during Science Year. "We want to raise awareness of the reality that science and technology are all around us. We want to enthuse, excite and fire the imagination of everyone, but especially those aged between 10 and 19 who have the power to shape the future of the world we live in."

Setpointscotland, tel 0800 731 273e-mail scotland@scienceyear.comFor details of events and news of a Royal Society of Chemistry poster competition (closing date March 29) see www.setpointscotland.org.ukFor Scottish National Science Week events see www.britassoc.org.ukFor the EISF schools programme, see www.sciencefestival.co.uk

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