Heather still has a passion for science - weather or not

29th January 2010 at 00:00
BBC Scotland's best known meteorologist has moved on from forecasting. She's off to help the education world blow the clouds away from the subject she loves

Heather "the weather" might have become Miss Reid the teacher if her interview at Moray House had gone better.

She had applied for a place to teach physics and maths, but instead opted to do an MSc in meteorology, which led to a job with the Met Office interpreting satellite imagery.

The interview for a teacher-training place was not a disaster but it did make her re-evaluate her ideas about teaching. She had been asked how she would deal with a disruptive element in class. "I said: `Remove it.' That wasn't what they were looking for," she smiles.

Nearly 20 years later, she doesn't seem particularly apologetic. "If you have taken it as far as you can, what about the other 29 kids who do want to learn?" she says.

But it's not an issue she'll have to deal with in her "second career" - promoting science education.

A month after leaving her work as a weather forecaster and presenter at BBC Scotland, she is devoting herself to the science education she loves. She will be working principally for the Glasgow Science Centre (with which she has a long association), the Institute of Physics (again, familiar territory) and Learning and Teaching Scotland, where she will be helping to develop a website for primary schools about the weather, climate change and similar projects.

It will not be a full-time occupation because one reason she wanted to leave broadcasting was she rarely got home to see her five-year-old daughter Jenna before 7.30pm. Now, she can arrange her days so that she can collect her from school.

Communicating the importance of science education is not new to her. When the Glasgow Science Centre opened in 2001, she worked there for 20 hours a week as a staff scientist during its first year. Indeed, she helped develop some of the programmes around its exhibits, particularly those focused on the environment and climate change. She also developed shows for the public and students, held workshops for schools linked to the curriculum and training for science communicators. In 2005, she become a trustee and non-executive director of Glasgow Science Centre.

On the day The TESS caught up with her, she was at the centre, working with S6 pupils from central Scotland who are working on the interdisciplinary project, which forms part of their Science Baccalaureate, at Forth Valley College.

Even if she chose not to train as a teacher, the didactic gene is obvious - both parents were PE teachers, her father moving from PE to biology and outdoor education, another of Heather's passions.

She says her first experience of great communication of science was her physics teacher, Mr Weir, at Camphill High (now Gleniffer High) in Paisley. "He made physics relevant," she says. "He did experiments with trolleys and ticker-tape and we would wonder what the point was - and then realised it was velocity and acceleration."

Her mission is to make young people understand the relevance of science, technology, engineering and maths - the STEM subjects. She believes the weather is an ideal place to start as it combines all the elements - whether it's chemistry and the ozone layer or using the world's biggest super-computer for forecasting.

"Why does science communication matter?" she asked the S6s at her seminar, before answering her own question. "As scientists, we have an obligation to raise public awareness about the importance of science - its health benefits; economic benefits (10 per cent of economic output in Scotland is based on physics); and the environment, so the public can make the links."

For all those reasons, we need more young people studying science at school, she argues, particularly when there are so many other options available.

"I think science is perceived as being hard, but I firmly believe that young people, including those not traditionally academic, can have a flair for science in the same way someone can have a flair for languages," she says.

At times science can be difficult and you have to be quite good at maths to do it, she acknowledges.

"But hopefully that's where the Curriculum for Excellence comes in," she adds. "We need to look at the way we are engaging in this busy market place of education - not to make it easy but to make it attractive to do something that's a bit more difficult."

She believes science teaching, and physics in particular, has become bogged down in assessment and equations and needs to be more "application led". She wants to see physics more "freed up" and set in a real world context.

Primary teachers' feelings of apprehension about teaching science have been blamed in part for the subject's lack of popularity. But Heather believes that it is in S1-2 that pupils are lost.

"It's just very dry in S1 to 2. I think we tend to cover a lot superficially then," she says.

Ideally, there should be a halfway house between teaching the essential elements and applications, but she is not sure if Curriculum for Excellence is there yet.

Over the years, she has been used regularly as a role model by the Institute of Physics in a bid to persuade more girls to opt for physics, but admits this has not worked.

In biology and chemistry, there is now a 50:50 gender split at university, but "physics is a disaster", she concedes: "Maybe it's the way we package it, although there has been a big attempt to promote physics to girls in particular through medical physics and environmental physics."

She hopes to work with the renewables sector and sees that as a potential hook for attracting girls to the subject. And maybe her raised profile on the education scene will also persuade more girls that science is for them too.

elizabeth.buie@tes.co.uk.

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