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Miming molecules

Calvin Dorion reports on the growing use of improvisation and role play.

There has been a sharp rise in teaching science through drama in the past few years. Moves to take the curriculum away from what former chief inspector of schools Sir Michael Tomlinson calls "pedagogical orthodoxy" towards "creativity and a bit of risk-taking" follow a belief in the value of student-centred teaching. Teacher-training colleges produce graduates able to use drama for different learning types, while in-service training on storytelling and drama in science is available through the Science Museum and the Royal National Theatre. At the same time, government initiatives such as Creative Partnerships and major science organisations such as the Wellcome Trust are making science through drama credible by funding regional and national "theatre science" projects.

Peter Sorenson, lecturer in science education at the University of Nottingham, suggests this is a good time for teaching science through drama. Studies imply that up to a third of all students understand primarily through practical experience. Traditional science tends to exclude this group by teaching to the visual and aural learners.

Peter Sorenson advises a shift of ethos, saying, "Don't do it at kids; do it with kids." Mime and role-play are the basic strategies. Mime is especially useful in letting children get inside the objects of study.

Secondary teacher Lisa Loaring at Speedwell Technology College in Bristol had students create a digestive system. Science consultant Helen Clare watched the lesson: "They'd wriggle along a tunnel being squished and bumped while others pretended to be digestive juices."

Mime has been used to simulate systems from particles in solids, liquids and gases, to the matrices of DNA molecules. However, the obvious playfulness in these simulations makes them especially successful with primary and key stage 3 pupils.

For older students, role-play's reputation for creating empathy makes it useful for dealing with complex ethical issues. To enliven GCSE chemistry lessons on limestone, students at Hockerill Anglo-European College in Hertfordshire held a fictional public inquiry where trade unionists, conservationists and other competing voices debate the expansion of a quarry in the Peak District.

Peter Sorenson says that in the past, science through drama was usually something outsourced to theatre groups. While attitudes are more receptive now, there are still hurdles to overcome, says Ben Johnson, a science communicator at the University of Western England. He says many science teachers are "unnecessarily lacking in confidence"; in fact, they may well be using drama already.

Lack of space is a problem, but even if there isn't standing room, dialogue in-role can be performed sitting, as can storytelling. Safety needs to be considered but, as Clare points out: "Hydrochloric acid? Bunsen burners?"

Drama, says Peter Sorenson, tends to focus pupil behaviour. Dr Jen Culliford, who taught the limestone quarry session, says: "Ninety per cent of the lesson students are really working themselves." This frees the teacher to observe, assess and help individual students.

Drama gives science teachers a different perspective on their students'

abilities. Inspired by a creative teaching seminar run by Anne Convery at Nottingham University, PGCSE student Irene Fischer says: "There is a different way of expressing ideas than just raising a hand and answering a question." In her Year 7 environmental lesson on the seasons, the students act as lizards at different times of the year. Irene Fischer can make assessments of their understanding by watching how they act.

Both the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Arts Council's Creative Partnerships are studying the effects of creative teaching methods, though as yet neither is aware of statistical evidence on value-added for schools using science through drama.

Evidence is cited instead from case studies, research, and anecdotes from science teachers such as Tim Welsh, of Ridgeway School in Portsmouth, who has been involved now in two science drama projects. Tim says: "It improves my relationship with the students and helps me understand them more."

Still, the Association for Science Education has pushed for drama in science for more than 20 years, through lesson plans in its publication, Science and Technology in Society, and in drama presentations at conferences. Deputy chief executive John Lawrence says: "A new generation has grown up that either hasn't been exposed to these things or hasn't used them." He sees the best way forward now as collaboration between teachers and industry.

Such partnerships are rapidly taking shape, as classroom practice chimes with interest from major science institutions. The Wellcome Trust's Science Centrestage in 2002, with more than 1,500 students, teachers, scientists and drama practitioners, was a watershed for theatre science initiatives.

The Arts Council's Creative Partnerships is in on the act, as are the countrywide Science Learning Centres: the Portsmouth centre recently brought together science and drama teachers to discuss methods of teaching about the debates in genetics. "With funding comes credibility," says Ben Johnson. "It's sending a strong message when the Institute for Physics funds a dance on the life of Einstein, that this sort of thing has a place."

In-service training providers

Science Museum: storytelling to support science learning at foundation stage

Science Learning Centres

National Theatre: creativity in the curriculum

Web resources

'Role-play in science teaching and learning', Gabrielle McSharry and Sam Jones, School Science Review, September 2000 'Drama and science', Michael Littledyke, Primary Science Review Funding bodies

The Wellcome Trust: Pulse

Creative Partnerships (via Arts Council)

Science theatre groups

Y Touring Theatre Kinetic Theatre Co

Examples of science through drama

Describing materials (KS1)

Play Simon Says, but with describing words, ie "Simon says be prickly; Simon says be small." Students perform or pose.

Meltingfreezing (KS2)

Students pose like 3D photos, showing three stages of a melting snowman.

States of matterdiffusion (KS3)

Students stand shivering together as particles in a solid. As the teacher says, "Warming up," the students wriggle or dance around in a group. When the teacher says "Hot", the students quickly spread out across the room.

Explore this task for sublimation and diffusion as well.

Electricity (KS3)

Arrange students in a circuit. Pass around a ball as the electricity.

Students as resistors change the speed of passing, switches stop the passing. Play at lightbulbs and motors.

Electron shellsionic bonding (KS4)

Two gangs of students represent two molecules. Each gang is arranged in concentric circles like electron shells. The gang with more students in their outside circle takes the others' outside shell members for their own.

Le Chatelier principleequilibrium (KS5) Students stand inside a moveable boundary (rope, a circle of students, or four chairs to indicate the corners of a square). Challenge students to space themselves out equally, and then maintain this equilibrium while the following changes occur: pressure, shrink the space to compress the group; concentration, add more students to the group. For temperature change, ask students to move slowly, continuously, then tell them to increase or decrease their speed.

Case study

Chemistry teacher Dave Quick and music teacher Jon Wakefield, at Arnold School and Technology College near Nottingham, have explored curriculum chemistry through musical theatre for 10 years. A new collaboration of schools and community groups allowed them to take a cast of nearly 200 students to perform science-based theatre at the Royal Opera House this month.

The group, named Science on Stage, unites performers from eight schools, two dance academies and a chamber choir. They are funded by the Arts Council, the Arnold Local Area Forum, and a local business, Nottingham Steel.

Entitled Steel, the play presents the love story of Iron and Oxygen in an analogy to chemical bonding and its uses in steel making. With a parody of The Full Monty and an operatic blast-furnace ceremony in which the lovers are separated, Jon Wakefield hopes the play enlivened pupils' reading of "the dry, dusty texts in class".

The production is a unique experience for performers from Carlton Digby School, whose students have severe learning disabilities. During rehearsals "they get to know the chemistry in some detail," says Wakefield, adding that their ability to become "fully involved in the music emotionally" is a valuable lesson for the rest of the cast.

* Science on StageEmail:

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