The experts have landed

9th March 2001 at 00:00
In a four-page National Science Week special, The TESS looks at projects to help schools around the country.

Douglas Blane reports on an innovative way for schools to benefit from external funding for science and technology

Satro - who are they?" asks a participant at the in-service course which began when a spaceship taking 60 Glasgow teachers to the moon was struck by a meteor, wrecking their computer and life-support systems and turning a routine mission into a potential disaster.

Since then, using teamwork, basic components and lots of ingenuity, the teachers have been building remote-controlled buggies, solar cell arrays, fire extinguishers and a device to extract the dilithium crystals, whose resemblance to processed peas has caused more than one case of terminal heartburn, from a damaged reactor. They have designed water filters from moss, batteries from fruit juice and a machine that turns the "blood-curdling bellow of a mutant tomato" into a harmless waveform on an oscilloscope screen.

Although guided throughout by acting director of Satro West Scotland, Steve Brindley, many are unsure of who he is or the nature of his organisation. This is not unusual because as yet the UK-wide network of Science and Technology Regional Organisations has a low profile in schools. But, if this is true next year, Lord Sainsbury, the Minister for Science and Innovation, will be entitled to his pound;6 million back.

That is the sum the Government has committed from April this year to the non-profit making Satros, with the aim of tackling a growing problem in the relationship between external organisations that want to contribute to school science and technology and the schools themselves. UK teachers can currently choose from more than a thousand resources and activities in science, technology, engineering or maths (Stem for short), provided by hundreds of companies, learned societies and research institutions. But most of them never do.

The diversity of what is on offer is both a strength and a weakness because teachers don't have the time to identify and select those that could be most useful to them. So the Satros have been tasked by the Government to shape themselves into the preferred delivery channel to schols of external schemes and projects and the first port of call for teachers who want to enrich pupils' experience of science and technology through contact with the latest discoveries and participation in activities that cannot readily be mounted by schools alone.

And although the Government's target for the Satros, to achieve a "strong working relationship with every school so that every child has the opportunity to participate in a Stem activity", is much more demanding north of the Border, with just two Satros for 3,000 schools, than elsewhere, both Scottish groups are delighted with the development.

To an outsider, pound;6 million distributed among all the UK Satros and spread over three years looks more like a squirt than an injection. But its significance, explains Steve Brindley, lies not in the amount but in the nature of the investment: "It is core funding and that's important because once we've got it we can multiply it with grants, which are much harder to obtain as they usually insist on matched funding. The beauty of this is that we can now plan for the future more strategically than before."

Gordon Shanks, director of Satro North Scotland, agrees: "It looks really promising. The only reservation is that the Scottish Executive is considering how this fits in with some of its other initiatives, and we're not sure how that will turn out. The Government, in taking this initiative, has built on proven good practice rather than reinventing the wheel. I'm hopeful we'll do the same in Scotland."

Most of the teachers see the astronaut day as a great success. "There are educational benefits in teachers getting involved in similar activities to their pupils, but there was more to this event than that. We arranged it so that the teachers worked in cluster groups, getting to know each other, learning to co-operate, and that will lead to better primary-secondary liaison. Satro were the obvious people to run this kind of in-service day because they see things from a teacher's perspective," says Glasgow City's science adviser, David Lawson.

For more information on Satros contact Steve Brindley, tel 0141 330 5370, or if your school "lies between Shetland and the Tay", Gordon Shanks, tel 01224 274188

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