How I teach - See the light in science

18th July 2014 at 01:00
How astronomical rap and expert talks can boost lessons on the Sun

Blue and green suns, solar flares and rap artists have all been lighting up my classroom in recent weeks. We are studying the Sun, as many schools will be during the summer term. But we are doing so in an innovative way.

With help from Heather MacRae at the Ideas Foundation, our project on the Sun has become a multifaceted programme with several cross-curricular aims, funded by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council.

First up was a visit to the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre in Macclesfield, which enabled us to look at the Sun and our skies in a different way. Visiting the planetarium and taking part in a workshop normally reserved for secondary schools really inspired my primary pupils, stretching their imaginations and scientific knowledge.

In the planetarium, the children's excitement could hardly be contained. Their awe and wonder was evident from their eager faces and enthusiastic responses. During the workshop they learned about ultraviolet light, microwaves, radio waves and sunspots.

Back in the classroom, we had a series of visitors both real and virtual. Astrophysicist-turned-rap-artist MC Orbit and author Lucy Hawking - the daughter of Stephen Hawking - provided inspiration for our creative writing lessons. After an engaging presentation by Hawking, based on her stories about a space-travelling boy called George, she invited pupils to create short stories and poems from starter sentences such as "the Sun disappeared from the sky".

Meanwhile, with the help of writing scaffolds provided by MC Orbit, the children used Sun-based vocabulary, rhythm and rhyming techniques and scientific facts to compose raps. These were recorded and filmed, but the pupils also performed them live via Skype to Professor David Alexander, who was then based at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California but has since moved to Rice University in Texas.

Knowing that their raps would have an audience really motivated the students. And the fact that their work was appreciated across the Atlantic gave them an immense sense of pride and achievement. The children's creations are now being turned into an e-magazine and will be showcased in Canada.

The pupils were also lucky enough to be given lectures by Professor Andy Newsam, director of the National Schools' Observatory, and University of Cambridge academic Dr Helen Mason. Such creative approaches have given my students a different perspective on science and have proven extremely effective at supporting cross-curricular learning.

It was great to see how the children's imaginations were fired up by this project. They loved working with real scientists and having authors visit their classroom; they were brimming with questions. The pupils' enthusiasm, and these rich and unique experiences, have resulted in subject knowledge that far outstrips the primary curriculum.

One child remarked: "I didn't realise that there was so much to learn about the Sun. I feel like I could be a professor now - a rapping one, though. All the science work we have done this year has made me realise I definitely want a career in science."

And that is what all teachers long to hear. Mission accomplished!

Alicia Barnes is assistant headteacher at Summerville Primary School in Salford

Top 10 solar resources

1. Sunny statistics

These colourful writing frames and word banks will help students to create their own fact sheets about the Sun.

2. Gimme shelter

This booklet is ideal for teaching younger students about how to keep themselves protected when they are in hot and sunny conditions.

3. Solar powers

A set of resources from Nasa Education explains how solar energy could be used for future electricity generation and space travel.

4. Lights out

Use this engaging video to stimulate discussion about what would happen if the Sun vanished.

5. Bright beginning

Give young children a broad introduction to the Sun with this PowerPoint, then take them outside to draw around each other's shadows.

6. Plant life

Find out how plants use the sun to make their own food in this lesson on photosynthesis shared by the Hamilton Trust.

7. Chill pills

Teach students how solar fridges are used to keep vital medicine cool in Africa and how to conduct their own practical experiments with a Pringles tube.

8. Shining example

Use these engaging activities from the US Department of Energy to demonstrate the crucial importance of the Sun. Tasks include creating a pizza-box oven.

9. There goes the Sun

In this video, Dr Lucie Green from University College London talks about how and why scientists observe solar eclipses.

10. In the shade

Teach young children about the importance of sun safety with this simple, illustrated story about a boy called Max and a bad case of sunburn.


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