Cracking liquid paraffin with cheese and wine to follow

11th November 2005 at 00:00
Organising an evening for parents deepened students' understanding of GCSE science, as Andy Brookes explains

Most teachers accept that the best way to learn is to have to teach someone else, and that students learn better with greater support and under-standing from home.

At Downlands School, Hassocks, we recently tried to tie these two ideas together at an evening event aimed at promoting closer links with parents and helping Year 10 students focus on specific aspects of their AQA modular and co-ordinated science GCSE.

We invited parents into school to be taught a science and maths lesson by their own children. Teachers selected 40 students from top-set science and maths groups.

A lecture on "The Magic of Science", by Dr Hal Sosabowski (of ITV's Ministry of Mayhem fame), was advertised as a finale, open to parents of all children in the school.

The students, in groups of four, five or six, chose the subject area they wanted to teach, the criteria being that it had to have a practical component, it had to be something they had already covered, and it could be completed in a 45-minute lesson.

They chose the following aspects of chemistry as they had enjoyed doing them in class.

l Cracking liquid paraffin: this looks at an area of carbon chemistry and the chemical structure and use of the fractions extracted from crude oil.

High temperatures and a catalyst break down less useful, larger molecules into smaller ones that can be used as fuels.

A byproduct is the production of some of the raw materials used in the polymer industry, eg to make polyethene.

l Shadow photos: creating these without a camera is a fun way to look at the chemistry of photography paper and how silver halides are reduced to silver by exposure to light.

Patterns and designs are made by covering the photographic paper and then exposing it to light. Areas not covered are reduced to silver and turn black when in during the developing process.

l The properties of alloys: alloys are mixtures of metals, and creating the mixing changes the properties of the metals. In this case, an alloy of tin and lead (solder) was to be made and its melting point compared to that of each individual metal to show that alloying has lowered the melting point.

We took some lesson time and lunchtimes to consider safety and to ensure that students understood the theory, that the practical worked and that they could explain how to carry it out.

We also established exactly who would do what: who would explain the theory, do the demonstration, write information on the board, help the parents carry out the practical work.

A group of students filmed and edited a video of the rehearsals which was shown to parents at "registration and break".

Prior to the evening, parents were asked to choose which science activity they wanted to try so that the students could prepare their timetables.

Time spent on timetabling and student training ensured that the evening ran smoothly.

On arrival, the parents were treated as new pupils, being registered by one of the students, given their timetables and guided to classes. At break, cheese and wine were provided.

The evening was an amazing success, and it would have worked just as well without the lecture at the end.

In order to be confident enough to explain the science in the lessons, the students found that they had to question their current level of knowledge much more deeply, to make sure they fully understood it.

They were prepared for their parents to ask searching questions and were keen to ensure they did not make fools of themselves. Interestingly, the parents were equally concerned that they might show themselves up in the classroom.

Andy Brookes is head of science at Downlands Community School, Hassocks, West Sussex Email:


* Make sure you get the students to organise all aspects as this gives them ownership of the evening.

* Start with a small number of students so that it is easier to organise the event- you can always extend the idea to more students in future years.

* Give staff a specific area and group of students to oversee.

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