Light their fires

5th September 2008 at 01:00
Science lessons need more pizzazz, says Ofsted. How do you spark reactions?

Take one water-filled wheelie bin, a lump of potassium and add an inventive science teacher. What do you get? A fiery chemical reaction and enthusiastic pupils. "It was just like a witch's cauldron," says Caroline Molyneux, head of science at Balshaw's Church of England High in Leyland, Lancashire.

Caroline's lab makes her tidier colleagues shudder: an authentic Nasa jumpsuit, which pupils can wear as a reward, rubs shoulders with stick insects, a fish tank, several lava lamps and a plasma ball.

A flashing sign proclaims: "Welcome to Science" and gadgets include an infra-red thermometer - which gives an instant temperature reading on whatever it is pointed at - bought for her by a departing Year 11 group.

"I try to do unusual things," says Caroline, 30, who won a teaching award last year and became head of science in January after four years' teaching. "At times the pupils think: flipping heck, this isn't what we expected."

But this sort of display could be what all pupils will come to expect. The Government, the Wellcome Trust and some of the UK's largest businesses have invested more than Pounds 50 million to help create more exciting lessons.

Through the new Enthuse and Impact Award bursary schemes, run by the National Science Learning Centre (NSLC) in York and its nine regional partners, teachers get the opportunity to attend courses to improve their skills. Some may be eligible for Enthuse Awards, which means all their costs are met, including travel and supply cover, and they will have cash to put new ideas in place.

Schools must pay upfront, with fees only refunded once the teacher has attended the course and shown how changes are being made as a result. It comes in the wake of Ofsted's conclusions: that teaching is good or better in two-thirds of schools, but many children are "bored and demotivated" by lessons and they take too many notes.

"What we want is more children staying on in science," says Professor John Holman, director of the NSLC, and a former school science teacher. He agrees with Ofsted's call for subject-specific professional development.

"Tests are important. But what good teachers already understand is that you don't necessarily get better test results by revising for hours. Motivated pupils are twice as productive.

"Secondary schools need to be giving pupils more opportunities to do practicals. Science can be memorable - we need to experience it with our eyes and our ears."

More risks will pay dividends, says Professor Holman. "Very few experiments have been banned. Teachers doing the proper assessments alongside the experiment help young people to deal with risk and hazard in a responsible way."

From this month, schools will be receiving the new Stem (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Directories, funded by the Government and including more than 200 schemes and activity ideas. Stem already sends working scientists into classrooms to inspire pupils (visit for details).

Pupils need to hear that a career in science can be worthwhile and well- paid, says Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry.

In a report published last month the CBI said there were not enough young scientists. It wants all brighter teenagers to study science as three separate GCSE subjects. From this term, pupils getting level 6 or above at the end of key stage 3 will have an "entitlement" to triple science. Mr Lambert says scientists will be needed for new projects, and adds: "The question is whether our fellow-citizens will do more than just pour concrete." One problem identified by Ofsted and Professor Holman is that of non-specialist staff. New courses on offer at the science centres - and eligible for bursaries - will help teachers of physics, chemistry and psychology who don't have those degrees.

Pam Richardson went on a chemistry for non-specialists course after doing a degree in biophysics, admitting that "chemistry made me want to hide under the desk". She is now teaching KS3 pupils in all three sciences at Garibaldi School in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, and says the course has boosted her confidence. "I now know a lot more practical stuff that I can link into `dry' parts of the curriculum. I started using what I'd learnt right away," she says.

For Caroline, continuing her learning - she sat in on her head of department's GCSE revision classes, for example - helps to make lessons more inspiring for pupils. She's also created a MySpace page for her pupils, which has found her answering revision questions about nephrons at midnight. She uses subject-related music ("We are the Microbes" to the tune of Queen's We are the Champions) and likes edible experiments.

But you don't always need complicated practicals or expensive resources.

Laura Jenkins of Bucklers Mead Community School in Yeovil, Somerset, another award-winning science teacher, gives pupils the price of cigarettes and asks them to work out the cost. "They found out that smoking 20 a day costs thousands a year - it really made them think," she says.

With creative thinking and timely investment, science can be more effective - and fun.

Residential courses at the National Science Learning Centre get an Enthuse Awards bursary covering all costs and funding. Specific courses at the Regional Science Learning Centres get a pound;200 per day Impact Awards bursary. Visit

Science in numbers

35,720 - Estimated number of secondary science teachers in England, 2007.

90 per cent - Teachers of chemistry, biology and physics with relevant post-A-level qualifications.

956,056 - Pupils who took double science GCSE in 2007.

63,208 - Pupils who took GCSE biology in 2007.

59,219 - Pupils who took GCSE chemistry in 2007.

58,391 - Pupils who took GCSE physics in 2007.

You can do it too


1. Capture pupils' imagination with a stunning science image or a surprise box. Get pupils to guess what's inside before you pull out something unexpected. Encourage questions by asking: Who? What? When? Why? What would happen?

2. Link to real-life science. Start an investigation with a news story or a letteremail asking pupils to help solve a problem.

3. Let pupils play. Exploration and fun leads to discussion, and then to different types of inquiry.

4. Make opportunities for practical work - if resources are limited, use household objects or set up a carousel of activities.

5. Report investigations - as a news broadcast, advertisement or a photographic slide show.


1. Encourage questions and seek solutions together.

2. Stimulate curiosity: it hooks pupils, creates a lifelong interest in science and raises aspirations.

3. Create cross-curricular links.

4. Make it hands-on, interactive and practical: give pupils time to explore exciting scientific phenomena.

5. Use contemporary contexts: keep an eye on science in the news.

Source: National Science Learning Centre


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