Just desserts for a fine technician

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Malcolm Littlejohn's award for his contribution to science education sheds light on an often undervalued job, writes Catherine Wilson

Malcolm Littlejohn is a gentle, quiet professional for whom, it seems, nothing is too much trouble. As the head technician at Banchory Academy, he supports the work of the biology, chemistry and physics departments, including all the stock control, budget management, equipment requisitioning and maintenance of the greenhouse.

He designs and builds apparatus and new storage systems. He provides a level of support and advice to students doing Advanced Higher investigations, or other projects, which is invaluable.

His management of resources for the school's open science area, where 60 S1 and S2 students may be engaged in a variety of activities at any time, is a model of excellence. He also supervises the other school technicians covering information technology, home economics, technical studies, art and reprographics.

After 30 years in post, Malcolm still attends training days and often provides training. Several of the junior technicians who have worked with him at Banchory Academy have moved on to senior posts in other schools.

As a member of the group that visited short-listed candidates in Scotland for the Salters' Institute's National Awards for Science Technicians last year, I was delighted when Malcolm went on to win not only one of the four national awards (and pound;250) but also a subsidiary award from the Institute of Physics for technicians who make a special contribution in the field of physics education.

In 2001 the Salters' Institute, in association with the Institute of Biology, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics and the Association for Science Education, launched the awards in recognition of the vital role that technicians play in running a good science department.

In the first year, 2002, 98 nominations were received and all four awards were made to women in England. In 2003, there were more than 40 nominations and all four awards were made to men, two in Northern Ireland, one in London and Malcolm.

Any effective learning situation relies on a repertoire of teaching and learning strategies. Computer simulations have their place but equally important are class experiments, demonstrations by teachers, project work, poster displays and access to magazines and other resources.

For teachers of practical subjects, such as science, the time taken in preparing lessons, marking and keeping records, does not leave much for the physical preparation. The technician thus has a vital role in preparing rooms for practical work, keeping track of equipment and making sure it is in the right place at the right time.

Too often the science technician is seen outside the department as "the woman who comes in to wash up" and not as a professional with a wide range of knowledge and expertise and an integral part of the science team. Sadly, science technicians also have often been overlooked when it comes to the provision of in-service training to keep them up to date. To make matters worse, colleges are now less inclined to offer appropriate courses as they are not seen as financially viable.

There are signs, however, that the Scottish Executive is beginning to address these issues. One hopes so. It would be nice to think that, in years to come, science teachers will be able to write of their technician colleagues, as one Banchory Academy colleague wrote of Malcolm: "He is a man of remarkable patience, self-discipline and generosity in a school environment that makes incessant and complex demands of everyone I He never expresses frustration at the urgent nature of the many requests made of him. What a professional!"

Catherine Wilson is national co-ordinator of the Physics Teacher Network and a former education manager at the Institute of PhysicsClosing date for the 2004 Salters' technicians' awards nominations is May 1.


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