Another small step for mankind

10th November 2006 at 00:00

It came and went in less than a thousandth of a second - but the implications of the discovery of a new element, ununoctium, will be far more lasting in the classroom.

A team of American and Russian scientists have announced that they have created three atoms of the "Holy Grail" element 118 in a brief, radioactive flash in a laboratory on Russia's Volga River. They admitted they had difficulty envisaging a practical use for the new element, which they tentatively named ununoctium - Latin for "one-one-eight".

But every chemistry teacher in the country will know one ramification: paying for a colourful new periodic table to hang on the science lab wall.

Damian Hirst, the artist, has described the periodic table as "the perfect symbol of man's attempt to understand, and ultimately to control, nature".

Two years ago, he raised pound;9,600 by auctioning two old Royal Society of Chemistry periodic tables that had hung in his London restaurant.

Since 1999, the society has sold more than 4,000 periodic tables a year to schools, ranging from 50p for small traditional ones to pound;8.95 for a large copy of the popular "visual elements" table.

With about 20,000 school science labs for the study of chemistry nationwide, schools could be faced with a bill of pound;100,000 to replace their wall posters. Dr Colin Osborne, schools manager for the Royal Society, suggested ununoctium's repercussions for schools would be greater than the repercussions for science.

"It probably means another row on the periodic table," he said. "But it makes little difference to schools because its practical application is limited." Nonetheless, ununoctium must take its place in the lower right corner of the periodic table, beneath radon, when it is named and ratified by IUPAC, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

Murray Robertson, the Glasgow-based artist who designs the images used to depict elements on the Royal Society's periodic tables, has already begun thinking about how he will paint element 118. "Because these elements are created in particle accelerators, and only exist for a fraction of a second, no one knows what it will look like," he said. "It gives me a bit of freedom. I can be quite abstract."

He had updated the table for the two new elements, darmstadtium and roentgenium, discovered in 1994 but not ratified till 2004. The society printed 2,000 copies but it is now out of date. Mr Robertson was philosophical.

"That is the reality of the job, and it keeps me busy. It is not fixed, it is a living artform." l


Grand designs

Five regional conferences are being held to offer design and technology teachers help and advice on dealing with pupils' transition from primary to secondary schools.

The conferences are due to take place in January and February and will tackle how pupils adapt their skills to a new learning environment. They will address issues such as classroom organisation and time structuring.

For more information, visit



Exam plan does not add up

Plans to introduce two GCSEs for maths from 2010 will dumb the subject down for tens of thousands of teenagers and leave many pupils struggling with A-level courses, a leading academic warned this week.

Tony Gardiner, reader in mathematics education at Birmingham university, said the moves would mean many potential A-level students little experience of theoretical maths after the age of 14.

The complaints come after Ruth Kelly, the former education secretary, announced in March plans to introduce a second maths GCSE, intended to assess more theoretical and problem-solving aspects.

But, to the regret of many in the maths community, the Government is not insisting that this second GCSE should be taken by all pupils going on to A-level. Instead, it says the single maths GCSE course, to be taken by pupils whatever their plans for future study, should be seen as a good foundation for A-level. Subject representatives fear that many schools, short of maths teachers and mindful of league tables which emphasise only the single maths GCSE, will not offer the second exam course.

Dr Gardiner said the single GCSE would offer less of a basis for A-level than the current GCSE because from 2010 it will have less theoretical content, incorporating "functional skills" tests in basic numeracy.

Dr Gardiner, a former president of the Mathematical Association, said: "It is impossible to base an A-level on a single GCSE. Pupils will do hardly any algebra, trigonometry and geometry."



Get a feel for physics

Two film-makers have created an animation about 12 and 13-year-olds attempting to grasp advanced concepts in quantum physics.

The film, The Pocket Professor, uses a virtual holographic professor who takes teenagers and their teacher on an interactive adventure to explore aspects of quantum physics, such as the structure of the atom.

Professor of experimental physics Bob Cywinski, who made the film alongside award-winning filmmakers Johnny Settle and Matt Howarth, said: "We want to show pupils that the real physical world is a complex, but also interesting and exciting place.

"The films will introduce a new way of explaining scientifically rigorous concepts which can seem to be counter-intuitive or defy common sense."

It is expected that The Pocket Professor will have its first screening in the new year.



Bring history to life

History teachers are "scared stiff" of encouraging their pupils to tell stories in history, one of Britain's most eminent academics has said.

Eric Evans, emeritus professor of history at Lancaster university, said many professionals were not getting students to give narrative accounts of what happened because their training placed little emphasis on this skill.

Many history teachers subscribed to the arguments they received in training; that the ability to retell events was a less valuable skill than analysing the information presented to them through sources.

History teachers have, since at least the 1980s, encouraged pupils to master the skills of analysis, reminding them that they will not win top marks in their exams by "just telling the story".

Professor Evans said this had been a welcome shift from the previous approach, when rote learning of facts was encouraged. But the pendulum had now swung too far, with A-levels in particular giving little credit for pupils' mastery of the chronology. Instead, they were presented with sources containing historical information and given marks according to how they weighed this evidence.

Professor Evans said he was not advocating a "facts-only" approach to the subject. He said: "No one is wanting kids to learn facts for their own sake. It's not enough to know that the Battle of Bosworth was on 22 August, 1485, for example. But linking the Battle of Bosworth with the establishment of a Tudor dynasty is important." Heather Scott, head of history at Allerton high, Leeds, said many teachers read pupils stories to capture their imagination, especially at key stage 3. However, this tended to be marginalised from Year 9, as GCSEs and A-levels emphasised analysis.

She said her training had not emphasised narrative skills.



Strike a chord with students

A music competition is to be launched in schools next week which will see its winners play at next year's Glastonbury Festival and land a record deal with a leading label.

The five-month talent initiative, Band Clash, has been set up to encourage pupils to participate in music and creative arts and hopes to find the best musical talent among the UK's students.

It is intended to comply with the Department for Education and Skills'

objectives for specialist schools to promote student activity, although the competition extends to all schools and colleges.

The competition is free to enter and open to all students aged between 12 and 18 years old. Download teachers' packs at



No faith in primary training

Some new primary school teachers have spent less than five hours learning how to teach religious education in training, a survey has revealed.

The results come from the RE Council of England and Wales (REC), a body which co-ordinates faith and professional groups that have an interest in RE.

The REC is currently developing a partnership with the Department for Education and Skills to improve teaching of the subject.

Lat Blaylock, an REC executive member, said: "The results are disgraceful.

How can young teachers be expected to handle the complexities of teaching Islam, Christianity and Humanism on the basis of such inadequate training?

"The RE Council's task now is to work with the DfES to provide both initial and in-service training so that teachers are properly equipped to promote respect and good learning about religions for the 21st century generation."



Poetry means prizes

Teenagers are invited to shadow the panel judging one of Britain's most prestigious contemporary poetry prizes.

The student who writes the best 500-word argument for the poet they feel should win the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry will have a chance to attend the awards ceremony next year and meet the poet.

Teachers can participate by encouraging their classes to read from the 10 collections on the shortlist and to vote in an online poll. The shadowing scheme is aimed at 14 to 19-year-olds and is being run by the Poetry Book Society with emagazine, the magazine for A-level English students.

Chris Holifield, Poetry Book Society director, said: "We hope it will inspire young people to read and enjoy the very best of contemporary poetry. It will encourage them to go on to read more widely and discover the pleasure it can give."

The project runs until December 15. Details are available at


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