Curriculum Science: Engaging children with health themes

4th September 2009 at 01:00
Medical charities have discovered that topical, health-related science themes engage children. Meabh Ritchie reports

Original magazine headline: Curriculum - Womb with a view

"My mum had a good and a bad gene, and my dad had a good and a bad gene. Tom got the two bad genes," says Ellie, aged 8, whose younger brother Tom has cockayne syndrome, a degenerative disease that means his body will never grow. She tells her brother's story in a short film aimed at key stage 1 pupils, found on the Jeans for Genes resources website (

The film paints a touching portrait of her little brother's life as she says that she wants to "chop the heads off" older children who make fun of him.

Jeans for Genes, best known for promoting the day in the school year when pupils raise money by wearing jeans, is one of many charities offering resources that help bring science alive for children by showing how it affects people. In general, materials that explore medical issues and the relationship between science and health are particularly successful in engaging pupils.

A study of more than 500 14 and 15-year-olds published in July this year found that pupils had very little interest in studying the subjects on the curriculum compared with health-related issues. Susan Rodrigues and Divya Jindal-Snape carried out research into gender differences in pupils' attitudes to particular science topics and themes in Scotland, and found that boys and girls shared an interest in health-related issues.

"The topics that seemed to stand out were epidemics and disease, health and welfare," says Professor Rodrigues. "There were also things that we were thrown by, like cancer and how we can treat it. We hadn't thought about them taking it that far. Unfortunately, the topics that they found least interesting are most often taught in school, such as plants and electricity." Cancer is something the majority of pupils will have been touched by, so perhaps it is no surprise that they are keen to learn the science behind it.

Professor Rodrigues knows first-hand the benefit of using charities to give science teaching a context: her PhD looked at the role of context when teaching the topic of oxidisation and reduction in four schools in New Zealand. The topic was previously taught through sewage and rust, but for her research it was taught in relation to testing alcohol levels.

"Pupils had to design a breathalyser based on the old model using a bag, rather than the new gadgets, so they would have to have the knowledge of the chemistry of the oxidisation and reduction process," says Professor Rodrigues.

Campaigns by the charities Mothers Against Drunk Driving (Madd) and Students Against Drunk Driving (Sadd) were going on in New Zealand at the same time. "The Madd and Sadd campaigns that pupils were aware of definitely made an impact on their interest and understanding of the subject. Their grades also improved."

Inspiring science

The Jeans for Genes resources are also based on the belief that pupils are more likely to be inspired by science if they see it from a human angle. The topic of cockayne syndrome could be introduced in the classroom with drawings of genes and chromosomes on the whiteboard but the film about Ellie and Tom gives it a personal dimension and Ellie explains the genetics in simple terms.

Another of the charity's films asks whether a genetic test could indicate whether someone has what it takes to become the next David Beckham, and introduces the concept of morality in genetic testing by looking at the possibility of a speed gene. "If I didn't have the speed gene I'd be quite disappointed, because sport is one of my favourite things to do," says 11- year-old Henry, shown kicking around a football on the pitch.

Professor Hugh Montgomery, director of the University College, London's Institute of Human Health and Performance, talks about the potential pitfalls of gene testing and the influence of environment, as well as the importance of gene combinations.

Jeans for Genes also offers a school speaker programme where family members of people with genetic disorders give school assemblies. Elana Levinson, head of education and genetics at the charity, runs one-off Cafe Scientifique sessions in schools where she discusses, for example, the ethics of designer babies.

"We want to show that genetics can be used in every walk of life, and sharing personal stories helps to bring conditions to life," she explains. "It can also be taught all year round and across the curriculum, in science and maths, as well as in citizenship."

The charity hopes that it can help teachers at a time when criticism of primary science is growing. Ms Levinson consults with teachers each year before designing teaching resources. "They're all based on the curriculum. We're also creating a teacher panel who will be available year round to advise," she says.

A report from an expert panel on the issue of testing in May found that the key stage 2 tests were not an accurate prediction of pupils' future achievement in science, and recommended that they be scrapped. It said pupils were taught facts rather than how to be inquiring scientists.

Ofsted's Success in Science report last year also found that in a minority of schools the way the subject was taught focused more on getting the right answer than on investigation. "They did not develop a thorough understanding of the subject, and their interest and enthusiasm were low," the report read.

Exploration rather than right or wrong

Annette Smith, the CEO of the Association for Science Education (ASE), says that experiments should be carried out with a sense of exploration rather than one of seeking the "right" answer. "It's much more about them actually learning something rather than just trying to reach the right answer," she says. "Not pupils saying things like `mine's gone wrong'."

The ASE is organising a Practical Matters project, in an attempt to help teachers with practical science work in the classroom. "Science is an investigation," says Mrs Smith, "and the more you can replicate that in the classroom the better."

Using pupils' awareness to explore a topic opens up aspects of science to the real world. "Introducing things such as cancer or medical detection can open children's eyes," says Mrs Smith. "As a general rule, if you start teaching from where pupils' interests lie, it's always a good thing."

Meanwhile, some academics are making the link between science and health by giving secondary pupils an idea of the importance of scientific research in the battle against disease. Biology is often a route into medicine, and physics is seen as a good accompaniment to further study of maths and engineering. But few pupils consider a career as a researcher or a scientist in its own right. The life of the academic researcher may seem too far removed from the world of pupils with little experience of scientific jobs. Stuart Pepper, molecular biology researcher for Cancer Research, runs an open day for sixth-form students at his lab in Manchester. Pupils take part in detailed experiments that could involve anything from reading DNA sequences to performing cell cultures.

"Very often, the best biology students go on to do medicine instead of research, because it's what they know," he says. The programme was developed in line with the A-level syllabus and puts the theory they will have learnt into practice.

"I think the same is true for adults: it's easier to take in information when you've got a context," he says.

One of the researchers at the lab is married to a science teacher, and they came up with the idea as a way of teaching pupils about science in action.

Mr Pepper thinks the media should do more to put across a better image of science. "Some of the dieting programmes on TV, for example, from my point of view have little to do with science," he says. "But they are representatives of science in the public eye."

Teaching pupils about the science behind medical conditions and using charities for their resources and expertise provides an antidote to what pupils are exposed to in the media. "I think that the media generally portrays science so badly," says Mr Pepper.


Many charities have educational resources available on their website. But even if this isn't the case, they will be willing to send out packs of resources and can often send representatives to discuss the science behind the conditions. Medical charities will also have a good relationship with people suffering from specific conditions who will be willing to visit schools to talk about their experiences and how they have been affected, putting classroom theory into practice.


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