Brush up science in holidays

8th May 2009 at 01:00
"Name the NASA probe which travelled to Mars" - one questions delegates at a science summit were asked. Only 15 per cent knew the answer

Teachers should use part of their 12 weeks of annual holiday to keep abreast of scientific and technological change, a national science expert has argued.

Science teachers need to take responsibility for their own professional development in the same way lawyers and doctors do, said Jack Jackson, recently retired as HMIE's national science specialist.

Experienced science teachers were guilty of giving out-of-date careers advice to pupils, he said. "There is a need for all science teachers to be better informed about what is happening in the world of work. This should be something intrinsic in science teachers; they should want to be professional and up-to-date instead of counting the hours."

He called for an end to the "I've done 35 hours, I'll stop now" attitude. "If teachers get 12 weeks' holiday, that's a lot of time off compared to other professions," he told The TESS at the Schools Science Summit in Dunfermline this week.

The "top-level summit" of science educators and business representatives was convoked by Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop in the wake of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which showed Scottish 10 and 14-year-olds' performance in maths and science languishing alongside Third World countries.

Ahead of the summit, the Scottish Government was candid about some of the "challenges" facing science education: secondary science teachers struggling to keep their knowledge up-to-date was second on its list, preceded only by primary teachers' lack of confidence in teaching science. Other problems it highlighted included secondary science teachers with little knowledge of science outside their specialism; the lack of science content in BEd primary courses; and a lack of progression in science teaching from primary to secondary.

On the day, delegates' performance in an interactive test did little to allay the Government's fears: Ms Hyslop admitted she was worried that a third of delegates got one of the multiple choice questions wrong. It asked: at what age should young people be able to describe an electrical circuit as a continuous loop? A later round of questioning revealed just 15 per cent of the audience knew the name of the NASA probe which travelled to Mars - "Mars Phoenix".

Two new university courses had the potential to make a "significant contribution", Ms Hyslop argued. From this autumn, Glasgow University was going to "up-skill primary teachers' ability to teach science" and Aberdeen University would be "re-energising" secondary teachers. Nevertheless, she stressed, Scotland still had the highest post-16 participation rate in science and maths in the UK.

To address the dip in performance between P6 and S2, Professor Jackson called for science education to be placed on a par with literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing; improved selection and training of teachers, including quotas for the number of science graduates entering primary; and the introduction of cross-sectoral science teachers to deliver lessons from P6-S2.

He also wanted to see better communication within clusters and effective school science departments made into "centres of excellence".

A Curriculum for Excellence was the "golden opportunity" to get science teaching right, with a coherent curriculum from 3-18. Its success or failure rested on good quality, experiential CPD, he said.

A report on the summit will be published later this month, based on discussions held in three workshops on improving the training of teachers, CPD and pupils' learning.

Feedback included suggestions that universities offer joint degrees in science and education; using the recession to recruit good scientists; ensuring sustainable CPD with adequate resources; and primary visits to secondary science departments once a month.

What the teachers said

Fewer than a fifth of the 173 delegates at the summit were from schools, and only four came from primary.

Marjorie Smith, a biology teacher at Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire: "Science has to be seen as central in the curriculum, otherwise it can get hidden by other subjects. It has to be a compulsory and core element. Not everybody sees it as such."

Mark Weir, a principal teacher at Netherlee Primary in East Renfrewshire: "We must show the relevance of what children are doing in science to their lives. Lessons must be more active and participatory with the pupils investigating, finding out and designing their own tasks."

Martin Wood, principal teacher of physics at Clydebank High in West Dunbartonshire: "It's money for appropriate CPD and training - there's no way round it. I've got a member of staff who is going round primaries trying to find out what they are doing, and something we could do together, but it's in its infancy and is being done by people going above and beyond the call of duty."

What the pupils said

Dominic Roberts and Lynn Crichton, S6 pupils from Bearsden Academy, took part in the workshop on pupil learning.

They enjoyed science in early secondary, being introduced to Bunsen burners and "getting to blow things up" - but exams took the fun out of science, with too much theory and not enough time for practical work.

The investigation element of Advanced Higher biology had made the subject more enjoyable. Both, however, will study law, not science, at university.

"I'm interested in biology, but I just didn't see a future in it," said Lynn.

The careers you could enter via science were not well publicised, claimed Dominic.

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