Getting them to reach for the stars

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
New boxes of simple resources are powering the transition from primary to secondary science, explains Douglas Blane

Boosted by an explosive charge of air generated by P7 muscles, the slim, yellow rocket flies from its launcher, bound, it seems, for the stars. But lofty ambitions are quickly dashed as it crashes into the classroom ceiling at Earnhill Primary, dislodges a fleck of white paint and tumbles gracelessly to the ground.

For the children waiting their turn with the rocket, the ceiling is higher, if indeed it exists. The new curriculum promises successful learners and confident individuals, as well as challenging practicals. Five Inverclyde primary schools, through the efforts of science development officer Tom Clark, are getting a taster.

An eclectic mix of equipment has been gathered by the seconded physics principal teacher, but the source of most is a kit box provided by Setpoint Scotland West, full of ordinary items that have extraordinary potential. A film canister, fed with an indigestion tablet and a little water, explosively illustrates Newton's laws of motion. A piece of carefully cut cardboard becomes a darting fish propelled by surface tension. A bouncing ball and a crumpled piece of paper sketch the structure of space-time.

"The kit boxes are full of fun, enjoyment and the wow! factor," says Mr Clark. "They are very useful for primary teachers in particular and were designed by Setpoint to help with the primary to secondary transition in science."

This is normally tackled in Inverclyde, says Mr Clark, by sending secondary school teachers into cluster primaries to deliver lessons to the P7s. It works well, but an alternative is being piloted around the Greenock Academy cluster, with Setpoint science ambassadors coming into primary schools and showing off science.

"What do you think will happen when I hold this drop of water on a teaspoon above the candle flame?" asks Sandra Spence, a James Watt College science lecturer.

"It'll go 'sssss' and boil," Andrew suggests.

"Let's see if your prediction is right," Ms Spence replies.

At first it seems spot-on, as the hot, dancing droplet hisses and bubbles.

But as more heat passes through the spoon, something strange and unexpected happens: the water stops fizzing and boiling and just sits there quietly, unless the spoon is tilted, when it fairly zips across its surface. What's happening?

"You can't easily see it, but we've now got a layer of steam between the spoon and water," Ms Spence explains. "That makes it hard for more heat to get through and also lets the water move more easily across the spoon.

That's what today's session is all about: movement. "

The Science Transition Project is funded by the Scottish Executive and managed by Setpoint Scotland West, part of the UK-wide network that organises and promotes science, technology, engineering and maths activities.

"It's all about supporting teachers in cluster groups to ease the science education transition from primary to secondary schools," says project manager Rebecca Crawford.

"Every month we produce a new experiment and newsletter, which can become a personalised resource for clusters. Our website has lots of information and advice, as well as case studies of successful projects. Then of course there are the kit boxes."

In return for a promise to provide a one-page case-study of their cluster project, any school cluster can apply for a kit box, with pupil and teacher notes. Some of these can be downloaded from the website, but the five kit boxes - living processes, energy and forces, earth and space, kitchen chemistry and community science fair - take a lot of pain out of preparation. They are appreciated by secondary specialists as well as primary teachers.

"We've just had one delivered," says Rhona Goss, the principal teacher of sciences at Monifieth High, Angus. "It's got everything you need for experiments with science work to back them up, and a smashing set of worksheets for our P7s.

"It could all be used by secondary teachers going into the primary school.

But there's enough background to give primary teachers the confidence they need to deliver the science themselves."

Back at Earnhill Primary, Angela Ferrier is equally enthusiastic, as she watches the science session unfold in her P7 class and listens to the squeals of surprise and delight as another everyday object reveals its scientific side.

"The kids are enjoying themselves, but they are also learning."

Andrew gets a big kick out of science, he says: "I like the experiments and working on them with other people."

His classmate Lee agrees: "In science you often get stuff you already know.

This is much better because it's all new."

The only problem, it now seems, is that voiced by Ms Ferrier: "Somehow I have to follow this!"

www.sciencetransitionscotland.org.ukScience and Engineering Ambassadors, www.setpointscotland.org.ukseas.cfmRebecca Crawford, r.a.crawford@physics.gla.ac.uk

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