It's a blast

30th January 2009 at 00:00
Can a Top Gear presenter really put the spark back into science? Nick Morrison talks to Richard Hammond about the fun side of physics

First, create some wacky experiments. Next, pour in a measure of combustion. Finally, add a star known for his hair-raising stunts and fast driving. Retire to a safe distance and watch the reaction. Could this possibly be the formula for getting children turned on to science?

Richard Hammond, who is best known for the popular motoring programme Top Gear, appears on television under a different guise as presenter of the new series Blast Lab. Its aim is to show the fun side of science at a time when there is widespread concern about the decline in the number of pupils continuing in the subject, particularly physics, beyond compulsory levels.

Hammond says he hopes the programmes will inspire the sort of curiosity about the world that he felt when he was a child. "I was interested in how things worked. I used to get all those part-work magazines and I remember one with a picture of a car - obviously I was fascinated by cars - where they had replaced the key bits with household implements. They had somehow constructed a differential out of one of those hand-held whisks. It didn't work, but it looked good," he says. Although he says he enjoyed science at school, he felt too intimidated by the subject to continue studying it. "I felt a little scared off. As a child I felt I couldn't do science. I thought you had to be a scientist to do it." But he says this means he can take the role of interested layman in the programme, posing the sort of questions others may be too embarrassed to ask for fear of exposing their own ignorance.

"If I were a professor of physics I would be looking for ways to describe something in simplistic terms for children, but if I'm a student alongside them, asking the questions, then I'm discovering things when they are," he says. "I'm not lecturing. I'm joining them on their voyage of discovery, and hopefully that will make the subject more approachable for children."

Richard has plenty of credentials as the man to make science appear enticing. As the presenter of a programme about cars where speed and daredevilry are key ingredients, he has an obvious appeal to children. The man nicknamed Hamster by his fellow Top Gear presenters also attracts another kind of admirer: he was once a "Top Weird Celebrity Crush" in Heat magazine.

Then there was the 288mph crash that took him from cult hero to household name two years ago. He was filming an attempt on the British land speed record when his car overturned, dragging the top of his helmet along the ground. He suffered serious brain injuries and spent five weeks in intensive care, but was back presenting Top Gear four months later.

But he is at pains to distinguish between traditional science teaching and what he is trying to do with Blast Lab. He says all he is trying to do is spark an interest in the subject, complementing what goes on in the classroom.

"I would never say what we were doing was teaching, but hopefully our role fits in with education and the classroom is where the bulk of that happens.

"If the best I can do - and I would be delighted if we could do it in a single kid - is spark an interest, then that is enough for me."

He says that although the programme incorporates all three natural sciences, the "how does it work" approach probably lends itself most to physics, at least on television. This is the subject that has been hardest hit by the decline in the number of pupils studying science at higher levels. While biology and chemistry have seen a slight dip in A-level entries, for physics the fall has been more dramatic, from about six per cent of A-level students taking the subject in 1994 to only 3.4 per cent last year. This has fed through to a decrease in the number taking it as a first degree, of about 28 per cent since 1994.

One possible explanation relates this decline, at least in part, to a decrease in the amount of practical work going on in schools. Professor Derek Bell, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, believes this is the result of perceptions over health and safety and risk analysis, concerns over behavioural issues around dangerous equipment, and pressures of assessment and coursework squeezing out the time for experiments.

Some of these fears are misplaced - few experiments are banned outright - and in the spring, the Department for Children, Schools and Families is planning to introduce a programme to promote practical work in schools, including additional training for teachers.

"Practical work is a key element of science. It provides opportunities to do things that you can't do through other means," Prof Bell says. But he says it is important that it fits in with the teaching.

"Practical work can be exciting and engaging, but it is not there as a distraction or separate from the learning. There is no point doing an experiment on enzymes if you think all you are doing is keeping the children occupied. You have to think about what it means in our understanding of enzymes and how they operate to sustain our lives."

He welcomes attempts to make science appear exciting on television, but warns there is a danger of raising expectations that cannot be fulfilled. A succession of bangs and wallops can lead children to think science is a non-stop series of explosions, when neither the time nor, often, the facilities, are available. "Sometimes these wonderful experiments can be counter-productive," he says. For teachers, this means managing expectations.

Prof Bell says experiments do not have to be spectacular to capture a child's imagination. "You can get them interested in mundane things by showing enthusiasm yourself and asking the right sort of questions. A lot of pupils accept the boring stuff because they can see where it is going."

But if health and safety considerations have been an impediment to the use of experiments, Miranda Stephenson, of the National Science Learning Centre, detects a turning of the tide. "Local authorities are beginning to recognise that they've over-reacted in banning some experiments," she says. "It is about managing the risk, rather than stopping doing the practical altogether."

She says subjecting practical work to external assessment has been an incentive to stick to the old faithful experiments, but she believes there is a growing awareness of the need to push the boundaries sometimes. "Teachers are thinking more about how they use practical work, because it is such a motivating factor."

There's a clear practical bias in many of the professional development courses run by the national centre, based in York, and by its regional offshoots across the country. A key audience for these courses are teachers who are not teaching their specialist area.

Research in England carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research and published last June found that about one in six chemistry and biology teachers did not have a degree in the subject, with the figure for physics teachers about one in four. Although this is lower than for many other subjects - more than half of all maths teachers do not have a maths degree - it still leaves a number of practitioners teaching outside their specialist field.

Physics and chemistry teachers are particular objects of desire. A government report in 2006 recommended that 25 per cent of all science teachers should have a physics specialism and 31 per cent chemistry by 2014, up from 22 per cent for each in 2007.

"A lot of our concerns are about helping teachers to become more confident in doing practical work outside their specialist areas," says Miranda. She believes science teaching also has much to learn from the humanities in how they use classroom discussions.

Television can also play a role, she says, and welcomes Blast Lab's emphasis on physics. "It would be good if it could demonstrate some of the sexiness of physics in particular. Physics is a solver of problems, and this should be whetting appetites and demonstrating that science is part of the world we're living in."

Richard Hammond believes it's not only his image and recognition factor that gives him a head start in switching children on to science. "It seems to me that they are natural born scientists, because that is the way they work," he says. "They think about what they want to do, they find out what they need and work out how they're going to get there. That's why they have no problem with the idea of experiments at all."

Richard Hammond's Blast Lab is broadcast on BBC2 on Saturday mornings. Richard Hammond's Blast Lab, Blast Lab Brain Busters and Blast Lab Rockets and Racers are all published by Dorling Kindersley.

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