The future is purple, Elvis

7th April 2006 at 01:00
Elvis is alive and living in London. I know. I've seen him. In our workroom, to be precise. Resplendent he looked with his trademark quiff, although the blue suede shoes had been replaced by mock-croc winkle-pickers and he was shorter than I imagined.

In reality, "Elvis" was a scientist, a professor and entomologist specialising in moths. Elvis the Moth Man was paying a visit to our school as part of a science week, and he broke all my preconceived stereotypes about what a scientist looks like. I was expecting an Albert Einstein figure, not the King of Moths and Roll.

I never really got on with science as a pupil. The weekly torment of Craig Hughes trying to set fire to my plaits with the Bunsen burner put me off laboratories. I was always the one made to stand on the upturned washing-up bowl and have the balloon rubbed on my head to make my hair stand on end to illustrate static electricity.

In physics, I could draw the mechanism of a fridge but hadn't a clue how or why it worked. Then there were the detentions for touching Clarence the human skeleton and making his femur fall off, not to mention getting over-enthusiastic with the wave machine and soaking Lynn Jones.

So, I approached the news that our school was having a science week with a degree of trepidation. I dug out Simon Armitage's poem that recalls the time in chemistry when he held a pair of scissors in the Bunsen burner, then handed them to a girl he fancied: "O the unrivalled stench of branded skinas you slipped your thumb and finger in." Swiftly I rejected reading this to my classes on grounds of health and safety. Visions of Craig Hughes loomed in my psyche.

Although I had passed the science block I'd not actually been into the laboratories, so as I approached the noise and smells were intriguing. It seemed the pupils were enjoying themselves. Hordes of boys in teams were competing to show off their projects. Woodlice were being raced, hearts dissected, optical illusions making the eyes boggle. Not to mention mould on food, solar power and rubber-band buggies.

The pupils were eager, utterly absorbed and having tons of fun. All were transformed and transfixed. This was learning at its most creative. No worries about tick boxes, initiatives, levels or labels. No dull theory, this was real, live practical science.

At one bench a group of Year 7s gathered around test tubes filled with the most vibrantly-coloured, jewel-like liquids I had ever seen. Casually, I asked if they had purple, my favourite colour. Crestfallen, they replied "no" but offered to try to make it for me. I wandered off to gaze at other projects.

Science. Scientific. Scientists. It's the New Labour mantra of Gordon's, replacing Tony's "Education, education, education." Apparently the three Ss were mentioned at least 18 times in the recent Budget speech, along with the pledge to provide 3,000 more science teachers. Fabulous.

Yet is this aspiration one with no real practical means of achievement? Is it yet more hot-air theory with no grounding in reality? Are there hordes of wannabe scientists lurking in labs ready to heed Iron Gordon's clarion-call to arms? I doubt it. What graduates we do have - and with the closure of yet more university science departments this pool grows ever smaller - are off in industry earning triple the salary of a teacher.

We need such investment, though, if we are to meet the challenge of globalisation and prepare our pupils for the modern workforce. Yet we need the teachers to teach them even more so.

Two-thirds of physics teachers do not have a degree in physics. The Campaign for Science and Engineering warns that our national shortage of scientific skills could be so severe that Britain cannot guarantee to succeed in hi-tech business in future.

At the end of the day, I receive frantic messages that Year 7 are looking for me. "Look Miss! We've done it for you. We've made purple!" Indeed they have. There it is: the most gorgeous clear purple liquid in a test tube. I hold it up to the window and we marvel silently at its purity and colour.

It's absolutely breathtaking, but not as much as the look of sheer pride and triumph on their faces. Sheer magic and quite probably the most wondrous thing any pupil has ever produced for me. Creativity at its most magnificent.

So if you spot any of those 3,000 desperately-needed scientists hiding somewhere, then please drag them into the nearest classroom. Make theory into practical reality. I've seen the future of science education and it's purple. I bet Elvis liked purple, too.

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