The Scottish Science Strategy wants a fresh approach to CPD for teachers of science, writes Douglas Blane
No one would accuse John Richardson, director of the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre, of being a starry-eyed optimist but behind his sometimes sardonic comments is a man who is hopeful for the future and believes science education is now moving in the right direction.
"It's about time," he says. "In Scotland, we've always punched above our weight in science. But the falling population and the fact that youngsters are turning away from the subject means we could end up in a new dark age.
"The irony is that while science and technology are perceived as causing great ills, they are also essential to finding solutions."
Mr Richardson is pleased by the Science Strategy for Scotland, but is concerned politicians may yet change the focus. "Science teachers have specific needs, and we don't want them overwhelmed by the generic, navel-gazing approach you sometimes get in teacher education," he says.
Mr Richardson believes that effective professional development for teachers of science - primary and secondary - must concentrate on two main areas: updating subject knowledge and "spicing up classroom methodology". The aim is to make school science as fresh, challenging, relevant and appealing as the science and technology children encounter daily on television and the Internet.
At primary and lower secondary stages, the national initiative Improving Science Education 5-14, is central to these efforts. In the words of the Science Strategy the initiative must ensure teachers have the "necessary motivation, knowledge, skills, resources and support".
ISE 5-14 is funded by the Scottish Executive and builds on a foundation of research, classroom observation and experience gathered by school inspectors over many years. It has identified and is aiming to replicate features of good science courses.
"Collaboration with industry and research institutes makes the science relevant and up to date," Mr Richardson says. "It is delivered by credible practitioners familiar with the classroom and the curriculum, through practical workshops in which teachers learn by experience. Materials provided are reliable and directly usable in class. Ethical and moral issues arising from new technologies are explored."
ISE 5-14 is being funded with pound;1.8 million over three years from the Scottish Executive Education Department, which will support the formation of up to four centres for science professional development around Scotland.
The project, with is managed by Mr Richardson on behalf of SSERC, is currently at various stages of discussion with interested collaborative groups.
In Edinburgh and the south-east of Scotland, the favoured consortium comprises the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, Our Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh University, local authorities and the Scottish Earth Science Education Forum. Some of this impressive collection of players were already collaborating on a pilot project funded by a UK research council aimed at bringing cutting-edge science into the classroom.
The consortium's project manager, Dan Hillier, of the Royal Observatory, says they always wanted to develop something sustainable.
"We didn't just aim for high quality; we also made sure the courses and materials would be affordable for teachers," he says.
"An appealing aspect of our model is that the CPD is delivered by teachers, with the help of friendly scientists.
"To turn this into part of a national project, ISE 5-14 is going to fund two national trainers here and at each of the other centres around the country. Their job will be to deliver training to a collection of local trainers, who in turn will provide it to the teachers. It's a sort of cascade."
Mr Richardson sees it differently. "I don't like the image of a cascade with endless trickling-down," he says. "When it is up and running, it will consist of just two stages: the centres train the trainers and the trainers train the teachers. This model works."
The Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre, www.sserc.org.ukImproving Science Education 5-14, www.solsn.org.ukMore information on the Earth in Space 5-14 pilot CPD course described by Dan Hillierf see www.scottishgeology.comSESEF