L'eau and behold

16th February 1996 at 00:00
A French water company has produced a science pack to encourage learning through experimentation. Robert Gretton finds a fount of ideas

A Hertfordshire water company, owned by Generale des Eaux, France, is planning to give away 1,000 Water Boxes to English schools with 6 to 11 year-old pupils. Its ambitious claim is that this box plugs a hole in the teaching of science, particularly for English primary teachers who trained before the national curriculum and sometimes feel inadequately equipped to do their job properly.

David Haslam, who has an MSc, is not in this category. As the head of New Briars School, he carries out the roles of both managing and teaching at his 190-pupil JMI school on the outskirts of Hatfield, Hertfordshire. It is one of 30 schools chosen, from Aberdeen to Folkestone, to conduct trials on the effectiveness of the Water Box and to help adapt it to the needs of the English curriculum.

Mr Haslam is enthusiastic: "I've always wanted to capture the interest of young children in science, not just because I took physical sciences at university, but because I understand why many of my arts-based colleagues don't feel confident about teaching it. The French originators of the box say that it is specifically designed to help such teachers."

In the present climate of post-privatisation disenchantment with water companies, wasn't he sceptical about a large multi-national water company gushing out such altruism? "Initially some scepticism was expressed, but mainly because the teachers' notes were so incredibly prescriptive and appeared as very directed activities."

The final version of the Water Box is expected to be completed by September, by which time Mr Haslam expects the notes to have been modified. He did add, however, that some of the trial teachers actually liked the more prescriptive French approach, "which is particularly reassuring to those with a scanty knowledge of the sciences".

Having witnessed the New Briars head in action with the Water Box and a lively group of 10 and 11-year-olds, I could see his point. The children themselves, who were new to the box, demanded that their teacher be absolutely precise in his instructions to them, but it wasn't long before he was using more subtle self-discovery methods. Mr Haslam explained: "We want children to come up with their own ideas, which are then modified by the experiments that they have to carry out."

The first experiment involved testing the purity of the water and checking its alkalinityacidity levels. Afterwards, they had to filter the sample and see if it was palatable. Dee Brown, a 10-year-old girl, then asked: "Do the water people do this test every day?" She was astonished to learn that it was done every hour. Learning through curiosity is one of the reasons, Mr Haslam believes, that children enjoy revealing scientific concepts by studying such an ordinary liquid.

Although the box is mainly geared towards science, (it contains the equipment and materials for 21 experiments exploring water characteristics the water cycle, comparison of liquids, water cleansing and movement of water), there are many promising cross-curricular links that can be pursued.

"The link with mathematics comes most easily," says Mr Haslam, "where tackling volume and capacity is a basic requirement." Other national curriculum subjects, which he believes arise naturally, are geography (weather projects, where does rain come from, how much do the water companies rely on rain to fill their reservoirs) and history (what caused the Black Death, when were the first public water supplies constructed), but with a bit of imagination the box could be widely used by other staff.

Apart from the 800 trial schools, or customers of Three Valleys Water company (who get one free), the rest of the country will have to pay around Pounds 150 per box. Which, considering its developmental costs of some Pounds 300, 000, is good value. A Three Valleys' spokesman says they are hoping to reduce unit costs by getting other water companies involved.

According to Mr Haslam, the trials have uncovered relatively few problems, most of which he believes will be ironed out when the final versions of the teachers' notes and work cards are published. For example, "there needs to be a ready source of replaceable items like carbon granules perhaps stock-piled by the local authority, and a clear listing and placement of the box's contents, so that when the box is put away, it's ready for its next user."

OFSTED's report on how primary schools deliver the national curriculum identified a national weakness in the teaching of science, particularly at key stage 2. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment, Gillian Shephard, has written to Hatfield MP, Bowen Wells, saying "I welcome this initiative and was interested to see this innovative approach towards encouraging young people's interest in science, particularly at key stage 2 but also key stage 3 of the new science Order." Words which were further endorsed by her Education Minister Eric Forth, at this month's launch.

The box, he said, "helps bring the national curriculum alive by reminding teachers and pupils that there is life beyond the classroom and is a very good example of a general trend of generating a better understanding between business and education". He looked forward to a rigorous evaluation of its use in schools: "Then I am hopeful other water companies will want to join in this initiative".

Further details on price and availability of the Water Box are available from Three Valleys Water Company, PO Box 48, Bishops Rise, Hatfield, Hertfordshire AL10 9HL. Tel: 01707 277110 what's in the box?

Materials for 21 activities, teacher's handbook, companion booklet, activity work cards, equipment cards and video. Plus 5 graduated cylinders, 5 funnels, 20 filters, 1 two-metre tube, 8 200 ml pots, one syringe, one special filter, special filter paper, 6 tube connectors, 3 tube clamps, pH strips, water hardness strips, 30 stirrers, 8 aluminium dishes, 4 beakers, 10 pipettes

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