Life, the universe and everything

14th January 2011 at 00:00
Taking students out of the classroom to do `real' research and pairing their teachers with those working in the field is getting children enthused about science's possibilities

It is Tuesday morning and a double-free for a group of Year 12s. But instead of lounging around the common room or catching up in the library, 30 maths, ICT and science pupils have given up their free time to look at satellite images of the River Mersey.

The group, from Childwall Sport and Science College in Liverpool, are at the city's National Oceanography Centre (NOC) to observe the Irish Sea from space. They are looking at where the Mersey - or specifically where pollutants in the Mersey - go when the river leaves the city and are examining the effect this has on the surrounding ecology.

The students have been divided into small groups and, under the supervision of NOC scientists, are exploring different data methods. Today they are going through satellite data, supplied to the lab by remote sensors. Not bad for a mid-week double period.

The project has been made possible with the help of a partnership grant from the Royal Society, a network of the UK's leading scientists. The grant was awarded to Mike McAteer, ICT co-ordinator at Childwall, and is the fourth he has received from the society to help set up projects in the school.

The Royal Society, which has about 1,400 fellows including more than 70 Nobel laureates, set up its partnership grants scheme 10 years ago to try to revitalise science education. Teachers can apply for up to pound;3,000 for a project. The only conditions are that a teacher is teamed up with a scientist or engineer and that both are willing to dedicate their time and skills to the project.

Five hundred schools have been involved in the scheme so far and many teachers keep coming back for more, either developing an existing project or starting from scratch.

"The grant provides us with a reason to vary the day-to-day," says Mr McAteer. "It inspires us to think beyond the exam results. The financial support is crucial as supply cover, transport and equipment would not be included within the school's normal budget."

Childwall's most recent project is linked to broader issues of climate change, specifically how pollution affects the local river and the coastline. But Mr McAteer's aims lie much closer to home.

"We wanted the Year 12s to be able to see what sort of jobs are available to them, whether that's as a scientist, engineer or mathematician," he says. "Through these projects, they get to meet people who have done the learning, and see where they end up. Teachers don't live that life and won't be able to answer the questions that pupils would be interested in like, `Do you get seasick when you're out in the boat?' or `Is it hard being away from home for so long on expeditions?'"

Mr McAteer says the partnership grants have helped to transform science teaching and learning at Childwall. Since the school's first grant in 2004, there has been a 24 per cent increase in pupils studying GCSE science, he adds.

But on a national level the uptake of all three sciences, both at GCSE and A-level, has become a matter of concern. A National Audit Office (NAO) report, published in November, found that half of pupils in UK state schools do not have access to triple science at GCSE. At A-level, the uptake of chemistry and maths has improved, but the number of pupils studying physics is still low.

The Royal Society hopes to improve the situation by making science teaching in schools more relevant to the outside world and more engaging for pupils.

"These grants help to raise aspiration and inspire young people by taking scientists and engineers into the classroom to work on real research projects," says Libby Steele, the society's head of education. "It gives them something that is a bit outside of the curriculum and part of their local area."

This was certainly the case at Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale. With its pound;2,800 grant from the society, the school brought water tanks filled with goldfish into its lab and started growing plants using aquaponics (the cultivation of plants and fish in a symbiotic environment) with the help of Manchester University's faculty of life sciences.

Jane Miller, a science teacher at Matthew Moss, says one of the main problems with the current GCSE curriculum is that there is not enough practical work, which makes the subject too remote for pupils.

"If we're not careful, science could be taught as a purely academic subject at KS4," she says. "Let's not forget that kids could get the grades at KS4 without doing their practicals - only 10 per cent of the course is based entirely on practical work."

But the aquaponics project at Matthew Moss taught Year 7s how to record data by monitoring the goldfish and the water.

The students' changing attitudes towards science as a result of the project have been a revelation, says Ms Miller. "It's not just diagrams in a textbook any more," she says. "They can see it and feel it. The challenge for us now is to sustain that."

The school's science technician, Roy Down, came up with the aquaponics idea after reading about ways of creating sustainable food cycles in the developing world. He has been delighted by the enthusiastic response of pupils.

"The kids really get into it and love dealing with the fish," he says. "It's very visual and hands-on so they take lots of readings. When feeder primaries come into the school, we do it with them as well and that means they already have a good grasp of recording techniques, so we're benefiting that way as well."

Even though they spent only one day at Manchester University, the pupils were inspired by seeing scientists in action. "These kids will not have had the opportunity to be in a university before and the students were working along with them and talking to the kids," Ms Miller says. "That's the bit that you don't plan for, but it really made them see that scientists are just normal people."

It is not just the pupils who benefit from partnership grants - the teachers involved get an insight into cutting-edge scientific research. Other projects funded by the Royal Society have enabled teachers to work with the perfumery department at Oxford University, textile specialists at the Victoria and Albert Museum and geologists in the Shetland Isles.

Marcus Ellis, a Year 5 teacher at Starks Field Primary School in Enfield, north London, has not only learnt how to pond-dip with pupils, but has also worked alongside ecologists and environmentalists.

Observing their work has given him a better idea of how his pupils process information. "Watching the specialists has helped me teach in a more in- depth way," Mr Ellis says. "It's amazing how much detail you can get in, even at a young age."

Despite having studied microbiology at university, Mr Ellis says teaching science at primary level is challenging because there is so much content in the curriculum. "It's such a broad spectrum of subjects that we have to teach at primary school and children will learn better from people who are experts in their fields."

In 2007, Mr Ellis received a pound;1,200 grant to set up a 30-square-metre patch of "eco-land" around the school pond. The funds also helped buy a dipping platform. All year groups were involved in growing various crops and a biologist came to the school to teach pupils about ecosystems and the origins of different foods. Three years later, the school was able to harvest 15 pumpkins for Halloween; new seeds are replanted each year.

Starks Field Primary is applying for another grant to extend the eco-land closer to classrooms so that teachers can incorporate it into their lessons more easily. Mr Ellis also plans to work with other local schools on a biodiversity project to repopulate the struggling ecosystem of a small stretch of local river.

The financial support of the Royal Society in such projects has enabled Mr Ellis to benefit from the most up-to-date scientific thinking in Britain. "A few months ago, I went to a discussion about neuroscience and was asked to contribute," he says. "You get to take part in these brilliant events."

The projects supported by the Royal Society are distinctive to every school that applies and can be as wide-ranging or as localised as the teachers want. One primary received a pound;500 grant to hold an activities week with practical games, which aimed to help pupils learn more about colours.

But regardless of their size and scope, each project aims to have a lasting impact on the teachers and pupils involved. At Matthew Moss, the results of the aquaponics project have filtered through to the rest of the department, helping to develop a new style of science teaching.

"I've seen the impact of that style of learning now," says Ms Miller. As a result, the school is now busy setting up a mock crime scene for pupils studying for a BTech in forensics. "I've taught them all about it, but now we want the children to go in and see it in situ."

The next round of applications for the Royal Society partnership grants will close on February 25. For more information, go to http:royalsociety.orgPartnership.

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