Putting the passion back

Are you zealous about science? One school in Slough certainly got its students fervently involved in a lesson about earth science by adopting a fresh approach. Victoria Neumark reports

Science, passion and creativity seems an unlikely rubric for a summer afternoon learning about earth science in a secondary modern in Slough.

However, on this particular afternoon at St Joseph's Roman Catholic High School, science does seem, to the Year 10 top set helping sculptor Michael Condron, passionately absorbing. With a large glass-sided fish tank, some bags of coloured sand and a comic artist Heath Robinson-type device, Michael has come up with a new way to demonstrate tectonic plates shifting.

He and science teacher Francesca Tekarian are involving students in an activity the teacher hopes "is going to stick in their minds and they'll remember it, even without revising", For the work at St Joseph's, one of 22 schools to join a Slough Creative Partnerships project looking at new ways to teach science, Meher Brah, science adviser for Slough, has helped Michael with the science, and Creative Partnerships has come up with pound;2,000 to pay for materials and three days of his time, and to release teachers for continuing professional development. Francesca has shown him her teaching aids - admittedly primitive plasticine models; and he has garnered an idea from a New York science museum. It looks like a "triumph of collaboration", but the testing time, running the machine live before an audience, is yet to come. There are shivers of anticipation. Meher feels this sanctioning of risk-taking is key to the success of creative partnerships: "It gives teachers confidence to teach how they want to. They have so much pressure on them to teach a certain way; this persuades them that the syllabus is not the whole world of science, that they can try something else."

No one is suggesting that the curriculum be sidelined. "You can do things differently," says Meher, "but keep the rigour." As Patty Cohen, director of Creative Partnerships Slough explains, it's more that "we want to ask for what reason and at what moment did you fall in love with science, and then try to help teachers create such moments for their students."

Francesca nods. At school, she became "absolutely fascinated by the patterns of the periodic table." Patty says: "Passion is an important word for science."

Module 11 of Edexcel's GCSE science specification is on "movement and change" in the earth. Last lesson was Francesca's plasticine models, now stuck on a board ready for a quick revision. This lesson begins with a quick review of the models and the vocabulary of plates, shifts and subduction by Francesca before Michael takes over and shows his unique simulator. It's refreshingly low-tech and simple: sand of different colours representing different strata of rock is to be layered on to a diagrammatic version of two abutting continental plates. A geared wheel, turned by a handle, moves one of the plastic shelves up to and under another, while we watch to see what happens. It has taken Michael considerable time and persistence to find a model that would show what happens clearly and reliably. "It will get your brain thinking along new lines," he promises.

You might think that these 15-year-olds, used to computer games and special effects movies, might scorn a slow heaping of coloured sand on to some plastic bits in a big fish tank, but you couldn't be more wrong. The whole procedure is absolutely gripping. Michael explains the design brief and how "every little decision I made seemed to make a big difference to how the machine moved", and how "the careful balances I had to find to make it work are like the balances the earth makes itself". He throws in bits of information - different wetnesses of sand collect together in different ways - and Earth is the only planet, as far as we know, that has plates on the surface which are relatively shallow, being no more than two miles deep and resting on a core of liquid rock under pressure - he makes them laugh a bit, and picks someone to turn the handle; tut-tutting when a little sand escapes the mechanism.

As the final phase kicks in and minute mountains form in the top layer of sand, there is a tiny gasp of wonder. One of the sand-shovellers, Lindsey Ruzane says: "We've done it in geography too, yesterday, but this is really good." Nureen Saqlain beams a broad smile: "You can't see it in reality, but this shows it happening." Danny Joy, who turned the handle, chips in:

"I didn't actually realise how it moved, but that showed me."

Francesca muses: "They are normally a good class but their concentration surprised me." Student Crar Hickey summed up the afternoon in words that must gratify Creative Partnerships: "It was good, it was something others can learn from."

l Slough creative partnerships: www.slough.gov.ukartsDefault.asp?id=247 Tel: creative director Patty Cohen O1753 470 324

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