Burps, balloons and big bangs
A new season of science outreach programmes starts up, but are pupils learning anything from them? Douglas Blane reports.
Science shows performed in a school hall or classroom are great fun for kids and a pleasant hour away from the curriculum for teachers. What's not to like about bees, knees, trees, sparks, quarks, stars, balloons, bones, burps, big bangs and barn owls?
But a month or two after the pupils have been stunned, dazzled and captivated by the spectacle of science, have they learnt any more about its substance? Is their motivation to explore, understand or practise it themselves any greater?
Answers should soon be on the way, as the Scottish Government has commissioned an evaluation of "the UK's largest touring science education programme".
Generation Science from Edinburgh International Science Festival is the programme under the microscope. The keen eye looking through the lens belongs to Jack Jackson, HM Inspectorate's recently retired national science specialist. "Science show organisers get feedback from their audiences using questionnaires, and it is invariably very positive," says Professor Jackson.
"They provide a positive experience, but we now want to find out if they have a lasting impact on young people and the way they think about science."
It's not a question organisations that enthuse pupils with bangs and big personalities can easily answer. While often asked back to the same school, they rarely see the same pupils, since shows are aimed at a specific stage, and kids move on.
So also does the science show landscape, which nowadays includes a rich mix of providers, from science festivals such as Orkney, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Highland, to universities, educational charities and the network of science centres - which were themselves recently inspected by the same team of Jack Jackson and George Gray.
Glasgow Science Centre was particularly commended in that report for its "broad range of outreach programmes for pupils, teachers and parents". The centre's first education manager, Rebecca Crawford, was one of the pioneers of science outreach to Scottish schools and is now development manager for Glasgow University Science Festival.
"We might not see the same pupils from year to year, but we often see the same schools," she says. "In the GOALS project, which introduces young people to higher education, we have tracked the impact on schools, if not on individual pupils, over many years.
"Then there's the interactive voting systems we use. They let you adapt to the understanding of your audience and focus on exactly what they are learning."
One of the most appealing aspects of science shows is the stories they tell, because the human brain engages with narrative more readily than with theories and concepts. In "Something Fishy", from TechFest Setpoint in Aberdeen, for example, new houses have been built on the banks of a river and the fish have suddenly started dying, explains Liz Hodge, managing director.
"In class, we tell them we've taken samples from the river - upstream, near the houses and where it enters the sea. It's simple water chemistry, but they are using beakers, pipettes and different agents to find out what's wrong - and wearing white coats and goggles."
Having recently launched a programme for nursery and primary schools, TechFest Setpoint is one of the newer science show providers. Physics and engineering, with which some primary teachers struggle, feature strongly. There is also an environmental theme with windmills and renewable energy workshops.
"We aim to work closely with teachers, rather than parachuting in and out again," says Ms Hodge, a former teacher. "So we could go in at the beginning or end of a topic - or in the middle to add a bit of oomph. We're aiming to have curriculum-linked resources on our website to support the teachers."
The majority of TechFest's offerings at the moment are science workshops rather than shows. It's a distinction that might be educationally important, says Professor Jackson. "Science shows do involve pupils, but it's more about taking part in the fun, rather than building or creating something, or doing an investigation."
Some offerings seem to blur the boundary between workshops and shows. Three of the 17 offered by Generation Science, for instance, carry the name of one of the most successful science communicators of all - Dr Bunhead.
Tom Pringle left university "with a degree in chemistry, a PGCE and a boy scout's sewing badge". They have stood him in good stead since.
In the guise of extrovert and at times outrageous Dr Bunhead (one performance etched in his memory had a cheery section on gaseous by- products of digestion, which was received in stony, scary silence by his US bible-belt audience), the former boy-scout has delivered 1,500 shows to a quarter of a million people internationally. He appears regularly on television.
"Tom is entertaining, but he's also a very good teacher," says Professor Jackson. "When he does workshops, he structures them so they learn by doing - and he supports individuals. It's not all about the performance."
For Rebecca Crawford, however, it is that element of performance that gives a good science show longer-lasting impact than a workshop. "The focus on the presenter can be very motivating for kids. It's about scientists as role models - men and women who are cool, fun and have a great sense of humour.
"I get excited about the capacity of a science show. I want to see change; I want more people turned on by science. A good science show can engage 100 young people at once, and you can get a lot of messages out in a short time. You can change the pitch in response to your audience. You can take it where the kids want to go."
"It is very rewarding, in particular, to go to areas of deprivation and see how the kids respond - with smiley faces and lots of pleasure."
For Professor Jackson, this enthusiasm for getting to the parts other science does not reach is one of the most commendable aspects of science outreach: "Generation Science visits schools all over Scotland, and uses funding from industrial sponsors to subsidise their work with schools in deprived areas."
In terms of lasting impact on science attitudes and understanding, however, the inspectors are about to start studying the evidence and will deliver their report in early summer.
Generation Science: www.generationscience.co.uk
Glasgow Science Festival: www.glasgowsciencefestival.org.uk
TechFest Setpoint: www.techfestsetpoint.org.uk
Review of the Contribution of the Scottish Science Centres Network to Formal and Informal Science Education (HMIE 2007) www.hmie.gov.ukdocumentspublicationsscn.html.