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More mud pies please Miss

EDRY McCORMICK TALKS TO SUE PALMER. All my favourite lessons now are science lessons, although I didn't do any science GCEs myself. About nine years ago - after I'd been teaching for 20-odd years - the head of infants asked me to do a science courseIand then the head asked me to be science co-ordinator for the school! I was shaking at the knees, but we've got a brilliant science team in Wigan. They reassured me that someone without science training might actually find it easier to get the ideas over to the children. And they're there to help if I get stuck.

I worked out some lessons on capillary action for last year's Year 2 when we were doing Forces - you know, "pushes and pulls" - but Ofsted came and we didn't manage to fit all the work in, so I'm looking forward to doing it properly this year. People probably know the first experiment, when you put two white flowers (narcissi are good) in jars, one of which has food colouring in its water. I do this as a class lesson, because then you can discuss what might happen, and talk about the idea of a fair test.

We all observed the flowers as we got on with class work, and within a day - "Look, look, Miss - I can see a blue line on this petal!" Over two days it got bluer and bluer and the children were fascinated - they kept making detours to look at it, and some tried it at home with different food colours. Anyway, there was lots more discussion about why it happened, and I told them about capillary action, how it "pulls" the liquid up the narrow veins in the stem.

The second experiment, using one of the trays the children keep their books in, is a little less obvious. Two of the class collected dirt and grit to mix up with water. They loved this of course. With a class lesson, you can ensure there's discussion and questioning at every level. I asked them how we could get clean water again out of the muddy mess in the tray. There were lots of weird and wonderful ideas, but most of them thought I'd have to sieve it - they couldn't see how capillary action could help.

Well, this is how it is done. You put the mud tray up high with another empty tray placed beside it at a lower level. Drape a tea-towel into the mud, up over the lip of the tray, then down into the empty tray. The water from the mud is drawn up into the fibres of the tea towel by capillary action, then drains down into the empty tray. I didn't explain - I just did it and left it to see what happened.

The next morning, the children were amazed. "Miss, Miss, look - it's clean water!" All day it was "Look, Miss, there's more in!" Eventually all that was left in the higher tray was hardened mud. It gave us loads to talk about: "Is it really clean water - could we drink it?" "How do you know if water's clean?" and above all, "How did it happen?" They'd learned enough about capillary action from the first experiment for two pupils to work it out for themselves. There were two follow-up experiments the children could do on their own, but last year I couldn't fit them in. That's the problem with the national curriculum - you have to keep rushing on to something else. I don't mind the structure, but I'd prefer not to be so restricted - you need time to follow children's interests.

Children love science and they soon learn to think scientifically. You have to be really enthusiastic, and use a mixture of class discussion and activities they can do them-selves. I like experiments they can also do easily at home, and show their parents. The children are always asking for more science. Even when they're in the juniors they come back and look through the windows at our experiments!

At the beginning of every year I ask "What is science?" and I tell them all "You can be scientists!" I say that when I'm an old lady sitting in my rocking chair, I'll be reading about them doing wonderful experiments and inventing something marvellous. I hope they all do!

Edry McCormick teaches at Castle Hill Primary in Hindley, Wigan

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