Wearing a wig is one trick Liz Hoadley used to catch the interest of her primary class and win the 1995 TESPfizer Science Teacher of the Year Award. Jacky Blackmore (right), a 1997 finalist, uses songs and mirrors to help her pupils with learning difficulties remember facts. As the search begins for this year's top teachers, Susan Young talks to past winners. She finds that no matter how much primary pupils are hooked on 'A Bug's Life' and 'Jurassic Park', and no matter how computer-literate they are, they have one unshakeable scientific belief: scientists are old, with shaggy beards and white coats. And that's where teachers come in, fighting pupils' prejudices and the demands of other subjects to make science lessons come alive
Past finalists and winners have delighted judges by appearing in impromptu wigs to star as Isaac Newton, or using a tarantula for a project about arachnophobia. They are a successful bunch: at least two have since become heads while Stuart Ball, the 1997 winner, has been seconded to Tesco's SchoolNet project, which will be showcased in the Millennium Dome. While none attribute their career successes to winning the award, those contacted by The TES recalled the uplift it gave them, as well as the effects for their pupils.
Since winning the award in 1995, Liz Hoadley has become the head of 70-pupil Bredgar primary school in Sittingbourne, Kent. She was delighted by her success. "It was a boost for the school, and recognition for the class. And for me, it was a real professional boost. Although you feel your teaching is OK, there is nothing quite like having professional recognition."
Stuart Ball, whose pet tarantula starred in a project on arachnophobia, enjoyed sharing the experience with his class at Llantillio Pertholey primary in Abergavenny. "The award meant somebody was saying: 'We think your teacher is a bit special.' Other people were a bit indifferent, like the inspection team which visited the school."
His award led him on to the talk-circuit, and earned commissions to write materials, articles and two books on science investigations - though there has been no flood of job offers for when his secondment ends. He adds: "The spider that appeared in the TES died. But as one of my pupils commented, 'That's the price of fame'."
Nominations for the 1999 competition open this week. Continuing the practice begun last year, there will be five regional winners rather than one overall victor. This year's winning teachers will have some hard acts to follow. Past winners are united in their enthusiasm for science teaching and their knack of getting pupils hooked. Every one has tips to share on creating a memorable lesson.
Julia Kelly, the 1996 winner, had been teaching for 15 years and had no greater science qualification than a biology O-level when she volunteered to attend a course at Canterbury Christ Church College because her East Sussex primary needed a science co-ordinator. "I didn't even do science at school. The boys did science and the girls did cookery and biology," she says. Just two years later - while pregnant with her son Joseph, now two - she won the award. "It's given me so much more confidence," she says. For a while she worked as a teacher adviser associate for the county, but has put that on hold until Joseph gets a little bigger.
Science with reception children, she says, can start from as simple a point as putting up an umbrella in the playground when there is a gentle breeze. "The umbrella moves. It's like magic to them. Then we start talking about why it might have moved." Another successful technique - which Mrs Kelly has even used with pre-schoolers - is to look through microscopes at everyday objects, such as clothes.
"They go 'wow' when they see the fibres. You get the 'wow' factor at this age. Sometimes as they get older they lose it. You've got to keep the spirit of enquiry and curiosity."
With the demands of literacy and numeracy leaving less time for other subjects, Mrs Kelly is concerned that science may be squeezed out. she is now teaching 10-minute slots after lunch, in which pupils perform simple tasks such as looking in a lunchbox and describing its contents. "This reinforces the vocabulary and lets us revisit things they might have done many terms ago."
Liz Hoadley has a similar approach. "The golden rule is to get them interested straight away. In the lesson the judges saw me teach I was dressed as Isaac Newton, wearing a sheepskin wig. That wouldn't be appropriate for all children. But if you have the right relationship with them they think: 'Oh golly, what's she put on now?' But it doesn't have to be silly things like that.
"One good way of getting their interest is to say 'I bet you can't...' and get them to do something - like touching their toes with their bottom and heels against the wall. The centre of gravity is in the wrong place, so they fall over."
Mrs Hoadley has a science background, with a Higher National Diploma in food science, but says she isn't worried about not knowing some of the answers. She and the class find them together with the Internet and encyclopedias.
Jacky Blackmore, a 1997 finalist, is more aware than most of the importance of getting pupils interested. She teaches at the Vines School in Battersea, London, which caters for children with moderate learning difficulties. Songs are one method she has used to help children remember facts, but one of her most memorable lessons involved a batch of eggs and an incubator borrowed from a nearby city farm. "The pupils were riveted. Every break most of the children would be along checking what the eggs and chicks were doing."
Details of the 1999 TESPfizer Primary Teacher of Science Awards, run with the Association for Science Education, will be sent to schools from the end of this month. The closing date for nominations is July 23