Exploding coffee tins and dry ice

30th May 2008 at 01:00
Science is not always an easy subject, particularly in the transition from primary to secondary. Su Clark finds a way around it

Science is not always an easy subject, particularly in the transition from primary to secondary. Su Clark finds a way around it

Kate Hanson was apprehensive when the acting head of physics from her local secondary suggested a meeting to see how the primary school taught science.

The P7 teacher and science co-ordinator envisaged a stern critic turning up, ready to find fault but not so ready to give constructive advice. But then she met Anne Lyall from James Gillespie's High. "She was so positive. It was great to talk to someone from the high school about what we were doing," says Mrs Hansen, who has taught at Bruntsfield Primary in central Edinburgh for five years.

"The sectors can be so isolated from one another and I often feel that, especially in science, the secondary schools don't appreciate the work of the primaries. They tend to assume the children know nothing and start at the beginning again, which can be dull for some of the pupils. But Anne was great."

The initial meeting happened around the same time Edinburgh Council suggested its schools create a common experience in science that children across primaries could share. The aim was to aid transition by giving them something that would unify them as they moved up to high school. It was an obvious next step for Mrs Hansen and Miss Lyall to create a project that would be interesting and motivating for pupils and teachers.

They recruited teachers from other primaries within the cluster, Lara Young from Tollcross and Kate Syme from James Gillespie's. Miss Lyall managed to squeeze some funding from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts that allowed the four teachers time out of the classroom to develop a model with resources which would enable any school to link up with its local high school.

"We opted for sustainability, because it was something that interested the children and was relevant," says Miss Lyall. "We were determined to make the resource as teacher-friendly as possible."

Lesson plans and experiments that could be done in a primary classroom were developed and written up. The end result was a model where each P7 class across the cluster studied energies: fossil fuels, nuclear, renewable and sustainable.

The schools did individual projects - solar, water or wind - culminating in a Science Festival, where they showcased their work.

"We moved other bits of the science curriculum, spreading it over P5 and 6, so the work on energies wasn't a bolt-on, on top of the class work, but became the science topic for P7," adds Mrs Hansen.

It took the team 14 months to develop the model and materials. During that time, the council changed the boundaries, which meant there was only one year when they delivered the project together, before Bruntsfield fell out of Gillespie's catchment area. But Mrs Hansen was determined to keep it going with her new secondary, Boroughmuir.

The following year, extra funding was received from NESTA for a double cluster project to ease this transition. The robustness of the resources was fully tested as it was extended to all eight primaries within Gillespie's and Boroughmuir's clusters. "Part of the strength of the resource is the CPD given to the teachers involved," says Mrs Hansen. "Anne led it for the first two years, but this year I did it for our cluster. And it went well."

The project is in its third year, and the cluster primaries of Boroughmuir (South Morningside, Buckstone and Bruntsfield) have continued the project, as have Gillespie's.

At Boroughmuir, the project has been linked to the annual Christmas science lecture, which has become a tradition since senior depute head David Dempster joined in 1989. As a fresh-faced physics teacher straight out of Moray House, he persuaded the senior management to let him run a whizz-bang lecture for upcoming P7s as a means of aiding transition. Since then, visiting P7s have been treated to exploding coffee tins and dry ice, and they love it.

"The best bit was when they made Mrs Hansen take some helium and sing Jingle Bells with a squeaky voice," says Rose Wilson, a P7 at Bruntsfield.

Regretfully, as far as the primaries are concerned, the lecture takes place in a science lab, and so each of them is invited separately. While this does not allow children to mingle with future classmates, it does give them an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the school, ahead of the three-day visit in June. For some it will be the first time they've ever been in an active science lab.

"Not many primary schools have science facilities that secondary schools have, and even though Boroughmuir's are pretty old, we have good teachers who produce great lessons," says headteacher John Hamilton.

"Along with the P7 science project and festival, it is an excellent introduction into science for these young people and we believe it has a positive affect on later attitudes towards the subject. The numbers opting for it are superb."

Large numbers of this year's S2 cohort have chosen to do two sciences, with 10 opting for three. But it is later on in the school that the statistics reveal the enthusiasm for the subject. Out of 120 S6 pupils, 27 are doing Advanced Higher physics; 15 Advanced Higher biology and 19 Advanced Higher chemistry. In S5, 44 out of 170 pupils are taking Higher physics. Gillespie's reports similarly high take-up.

P7 pupil Rachel Frew, from Bruntsfield, has witnessed the lecture and participated in the science festival that was hosted this year at Bruntsfield. She was on the debating team, while other pupils from her school presented a drama piece along the lines of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, interspersed with "sunflashes" of facts about global warming and sustainability.

Buckstone and South Morningside also used drama to make their point, as well as posters and other art work.

After witnessing it all, Rachel is looking forward to studying science at Boroughmuir and wants to become a vet. Her classmate Ross Crawford isn't sure what he wants to do, but he thinks science will be fun. Meanwhile comments by the teachers involved show that the link is making science much less intimidating for them and more enjoyable to teach.

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