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Putting the spark back into science

Thickening fluids, perfect poos and How Hot Are You? sessions are all on the agenda for teachers at Satrosphere Science Centre. Jean McLeish reports

Thickening fluids, perfect poos and How Hot Are You? sessions are all on the agenda for teachers at Satrosphere Science Centre. Jean McLeish reports

It's the sort of bowl of goo you just have to get your hands on and try for yourself. The harder you stir, the harder the mix becomes. This is kitchen chemistry using a mixture of cornflour and water - simple entertainment for all ages to illustrate how molecules work.

"It's a stir-thickening fluid - the more pressure you apply, the more it pushes back, the harder it becomes. All the molecules - the little bits that make it up - condense together, get closer together and act more like a solid," says science education officer Calli Buchanan.

She's demonstrating experiments like this to Aberdeen primary teachers, using products found in most kitchens, describing equipment needed and explaining what children will learn from it all.

The teachers had taken a week out of their holidays to join the first Science and Technologies Summer School, organised by Aberdeen City Council at the city's Satrosphere Science Centre, working in partnership with Dundee Science Centre.

Satrosphere delivers a curriculum-linked education programme of shows and workshops for children of all ages and offers CPD for teachers to support science learning and teaching. People don't take themselves too seriously here - their core education programme includes a session on the role of the digestive system - "How to Make the Perfect Poo".

In a hands-on interactive session called "How Hot Are You?", teachers learn about the principles of heat and insulation and how to communicate this to young children. They have a Maths Challenge workshop with problems and puzzles, and sessions learning how to teach how electricity and sound work.

There are interactive workshops on magnetism and gravity and in technology they will investigate pneumatics and design and build their own working models. There are topical debates focusing on how teachers can hold similar discussions in their classrooms.

The week is part of a range of strategies by Aberdeen to raise the profile of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in schools. In a survey by the authority, primary teachers reported a lack of confidence about teaching science to children.

Some of the teachers here have science degrees, but want to revisit their basic science and find ways of making it fun and simple for children. This is only day two, but the teachers are already enthused.

Katie Glass teaches P4 at Bramble Brae School and has a degree in genetics. "I did a science degree before I became a teacher but I am kind of rusty in it now, so I am really interested in this," she says. "I came to get ideas and see what resources I need to implement them in the classroom. It's been brilliant."

Teachers are being shown how to use resources they can borrow and encouraged to phone or email these experts for help and advice. They will bring their pupils for a free class visit to the current exhibition.

Pat Maley teaches P23 at Holy Family School and has a degree in molecular biology. "I just want to be able to answer the questions children ask me and be able to get my concepts correct," she says.

"This has been excellent and the two facilitators we've had both days have just been outstanding," says P5 teacher Elizabeth Sinclair from Tullos Primary. "They are telling us where we can find resources. It's not just about teaching us the actual science experiments; they are showing us websites where we can find things. So it's just 10 out of 10."

Several teachers say they've welcomed the Maths Challenges. "We're only into the end of day two and I've got so many ideas I can't wait to get back to the classroom and try," says Debbie Parrott, from the support for learning base at Fernielea School.

In the evening teachers enjoy a glass of wine and buffet while they tour the Monster Creepy Crawlies Exhibition their pupils will visit. "My boyfriend's been calling this my geek week, but I've been calling it my fat week, because the cakes and sandwiches and everything have been really, really good," Ms Parrott laughs.

`We hope that teachers get energised by this'

Aberdeen has embarked on a programme to promote science and technology in schools in the run-up to 2012, when the city will host the British Science Festival.

This week-long CPD for primary teachers is just one of a raft of measures to encourage enjoyment and attainment in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects for children of all ages.

"What we hope is that teachers get energised by this and I think they are," said David Leng, head of schools and educational establishments for Aberdeen City Council, who visited the festival.

"There is a buzz about it and they will go into schools and champion science, and they'll be given an opportunity by their headteachers to develop some of the skills from in their own classrooms. We'd also be supporting them in doing CPD sessions for staff in their own schools."

Funding is also in place for 14 Aberdeen primaries to pursue the Primary Science Quality Mark, an award scheme led by the Association for Science Education. And a science in residency programme is being run for secondary schools in partnership with industry, to give pupils the opportunity to work alongside professional scientists.

This year 29 pupils at Bridge of Don and Oldmachar academies are working on the Scottish Baccalaureate in science, compared with just one last year. Pupils will be undertaking partnerships with oil companies, the NHS and universities for the interdisciplinary projects.

"We have this whole range of initiatives to raise the profile and skills set of STEM subjects," says Mr Leng. "So there's a buzz about science and technology in our schools which we think there should be in this city and that will all culminate in the fact that the British Science Festival is coming to Aberdeen in 2012."

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