Douglas Blane sees how a special school in Belfast used the idea of alien life-forms to explain science to its pupils and win a Rolls Royce science prize
"Our sensory garden won silver medal in Northern Ireland's Garden Show,"
says Norman Johnston, head of science at Fleming Fulton School, in Belfast.
"You often get crowds of people milling around out there, with sheep baa-ing, cats miaowing and a peacock making an awful racket while we're in here trying to do science."
As he speaks, a life-sized wickerwork sheep goes tumbling past the window, blown off its feet by a sudden gust of wind; pupils in the science lab look, share a laugh, then get back to work.
The sensory garden is not the only science feature at Fleming Fulton that has been winning awards. In recent years the department, consisting only of Norman and technician Colin Doyle, has scooped up ICT in Practice, Excellence in Special Needs, the BT Schools Award, the Science Technician Award and the Northern Ireland Teaching Assistant of the Year.
The latest recognition of their innovative approach to special needs science education has come from Rolls-Royce for a project which, the judges say, "builds on pupils' interests, incorporates IT and has the potential to be shared by SEN and mainstream schools".
The Rolls-Royce science prize, which promotes excellence in science teaching, has announced its first nine winners from Britain and the Republic of Ireland, who each receive pound;5,000 to develop a proposal for enhancing science lessons.
Fleming Fulton, located among the rhododendrons and red-brick of Belfast's south-side, is a non-denominational school for pupils aged 2 to 19 who have physical disabilities. In the science lab, a giant rubbish monster on the ceiling, tucking into used cans and waste paper, greets the visitor, along with colourful posters on the walls, computers on the benches, a skeleton, a silver rocket, a plastic man with removable intestines, and several stuffed animals in glass cases.
"We use those in one of the Star Trek lessons that won us the Rolls-Royce prize," says Norman. "These all build on the idea that the kids are aliens visiting Earth and finding out everything they can. So we have this matter transporter (he indicates a large cardboard cylinder).
"First the aliens find onion cells in it, the building blocks of life. Next they try to bring up a life-form, but it arrives in bits - heart, lungs, liver - which they try to re-assemble. Then they bring up a whole animal.
So the kids will be blindfolded, and they put their hands out cautiously and touch it and say 'It's got hair. Is it alive?' Then we take the blindfold off and they go: 'Oh my goodness, it's a badger.' It's totally interactive and animated and the kids love it."
While one group of Fleming Fulton's Year 11-12 pupils follows a mainstream course to GCSE, another studies for AQA entry-level qualifications. It's the latter group of pupils who will use the Star Trek resources. "A few have profound disabilities," says Norman. "But absolutely all of them can do science if you adapt it to meet their needs."
Careful supervision, team teaching and group work allow everyone to play a part in experiments. "One pupil might record on the computer, while the others are working with their hands," says Colin, whose ingenious adaptations, such as replacing tripods with strong clamps attached to rigid rods, play a key role in helping students access the curriculum.
Using imagination to involve every pupil diffuses through the school, says Norman. "There's also literacy and numeracy. Some kids struggle with their 10-times table, but give them a meaningful context and a calculator and they'll happily work out the velocity of a spaceship."
Star Trek resources funded by the Rolls-Royce prize are being uploaded to the school website, where they will be freely available to other schools.
They consist of PowerPoint presentations accompanied by colourfully illustrated worksheets. Schools can adapt these. As Norman says, "You need to keep thinking. It's not rocket science."
Unlike some commercial packages, science resources at Fleming Fulton are highly relevant, says Gill Humes, Belfast's assistant science adviser:
"They've been tailored and shaped to the kids and to the curriculum. Part of my job is to locate good practice and share it with other schools. So I now get Norman to deliver in-service to teachers from mainstream schools.
You can see the lights go on as he's talking to them, and they're thinking 'I can do that'."
It's a feeling shared by Norman's pupils: "I love science," says Georgina (15), who wants to be a scientist and an actor. "Do you know there are 206 bones in the human body?" she says. "But a baby has over 300. That's amazing, isn't it?"
* Make sure teacher and technician work together as a team. Study the criteria.
* Use your imagination to find different contexts for science. Look ahead at technology as it advances, noting developments that could be useful in school.
* Make links with local industry. After Fleming Fulton pupils built a spaceship, Norman Johnson asked aerospace company Bombardier to produce kits, which the children can assemble to make their own model spaceships.
* The Rolls-Royce science prize invites teachers of pupils aged 3 to 19 to submit proposals that meet a need in their school or college. The best receive pound;5,000 to implement them and the overall winner gets a further Pounds 15,000 for their department. The aim is to build an online bank of teaching resources and ideas.
Schools can enter for next year's prize on the website from June 1
* The science department at Fleming Fulton School has begun uploading the Star Trek lessons on to its website. Other resources available include a nature trail and descriptions of how to make science accessible to all.
www.flemingfulton.org.uk (click on Departments, Secondary, Science)