Wacky experiments are one way of putting the fun back into 21st-century science. Jill Parkin reports on how good teaching - and three new GCSEs - can fire pupils' imaginations
Inspectors at Hawley Place school were asking pupils why they were running to their lesson. Late again? Ferocious teacher? "It's science - our favourite lesson," came the reply.
They weren't joking. Pupils at the independent school in Camberley, Surrey, are always keen to know what their teacher, Shirley Warner, will come up with next, particularly those who remember her parachuting eggs.
"Science is the best subject in the school curriculum and my role is to get my students to believe that. I try to make my lessons informative, relevant to life, and fun," says Mrs Warner. "Last week, as I emptied my bag on the bench, a Year 9 student said, 'You've been to Wilkinson's (hardware store) again, Mrs Warner'."
The nails and wire from the bag joined glue, sequins and glitter alongside the Bunsen burners and beakers. Mrs Warner was about to teach about animals and their environment in her own style. "We were tackling adaptation, so instead of talking about polar bears and Arctic conditions, we built a pink and purple forest with colourful palm trees and fruit, then designed animals to live in it. This gives real scientific understanding of how animals must adapt to survive."
It's an outward-looking approach to science that is in keeping with the spirit of pilot GCSEs starting in about 80 schools in the autumn term. And it works across both school phases, says Mrs Warner. "We catch 'em young by introducing students to science as soon as possible, with special days for local primary schools to come in and use a laboratory, Bunsen burners and all the scientific apparatus from Year 5.
"We do non-lab work with them, too. Dropping parachutes loaded with raw eggs from a nearby bridge seems wicked and wild to a Year 5 student, but following it up with more conventional paper spinners in class, ensures the principles of propagation are learned and understood. Lessons need to explain life, and life is fun. Planning and preparation is taxing, but when students say science is fun and they achieve, that's a reward."
Explaining life is what school science has, by and large, been failing to do, say politicians. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority hopes the three new GCSEs - provisionally known as 21st-century science, and comprising a core curriculum common to all, and optional general and applied curriculums - will answer last summer's criticism by the Commons science and technology select committee that lessons are perceived as boring and fail to reflect the science of everyday life. The present curriculum is over-prescriptive, they say, and gives no opportunity for discussion of contemporary controversies such as genetically modified food, the MMR vaccine and cloning.
The core course, which will be the primary key stage 4 qualification, aims to make pupils scientifically literate. Its two essential elements are science explanations and ideas about science. The first is the factual part; the second looks at such areas as data, theories, the scientific community and risk. Modules will include health, life on earth, and genetics.
The additional general course has modules on the brain and mind, chemicals in the environment and radiation. The additional applied course explores how science underpins the working world. Its modules cover scientific detection, consumer science, and environmental management. Martin Hollins, QCA principal officer for science, says: "This GCSE is particularly radical; that's why it's being done as a pilot. We didn't want to impose something which might not work.
"The three-part model should be good for everyone. The core should make everyone more scientifically aware, and be a good foundation for those doing the other two options. Behind it, there's a change in the relationship between teachers and students, to one that creates opportunities for students to say what they think about scientific issues.
It's a tough role for teachers: facilitating an exploration of student views, then making use of them in science. It has something in common with humanities teaching.
"Take an investigation into air quality. The pupils can be guided to up-to-date information on good websites; links can be made to contemporary topics such as asthma and the effects of pollution. Some solid and straightforward chemistry can be taught, and they can learn about integrating data. And it's all based on science that is part of their lives."
Topicality and profile occupy Dr Derek Bell, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, rather more than do allegations of boredom among the Bunsen burners. "Is it really true that the fun has gone out of science?" he asks. "Words such as boring and irrelevant are being used to describe the pupils' experiences, and it's all too easy to see this as the universal picture. It's simply not true. Neither is it true that all science lessons are exciting and fun for all pupils. What lessons are?
"In fact, many science teachers are engaging pupils in the fascinating world of science. Despite the obvious constraints, teachers are finding ways of involving their pupils and capturing their imagination.
"At the ASE we're working to find ways of supporting our members and other science teachers to raise the profile of science teaching. Take our ASEscience year CD-roms. Have you tried Flesh-eaters on the Who am I? CD-rom?"
The ASE also runs a service called UPD8, which brings out the science behind news headlines. ASE members can be alerted to curriculum-relevant stories with a weekly menu of news-linked lessons, sent to mobile phones or email addresses. "There are other ways of making science fun on our website," says Dr Bell. So where do all these ideas come from? "From teachers. There's a lot of exciting science going on, but the challenge is to make sure we spread this more widely."
Here's one idea that could be spread more widely, though at the risk of some sticky pupils. For curricular comprehensiveness, Kay Coverdale's fruit salad lesson would be hard to beat. She says it keeps enthusiasm high among her Year 1 pupils at Wheatlands primary school in Redcar, Cleveland, a 400-pupil school where she is science co-ordinator.
"Cross-curricular links allow more students to perform well. I begin the lesson by sharing a big book called Oliver's Fruit Salad, by Vivian French.
The children read along with the story. Then a group works on sorting fruits and vegetables into categories, such as citrus and non-citrus.
Another group working with a teaching assistant investigates which part of the body is the most reliable for touch, then tries distinguishing unknown fruits.
"My teacher focus group devises its own investigation into which fruits float and which sink. The children give predictions. They are amazed that the large grapefruit floats, but when challenged to explain why such a big fruit floats, they give wonderful suggestions, including air being trapped under the skin and the skin being waterproof. When the fruit is later peeled, and sinks, the children cheer.
"To end the lesson, the children are asked to form a huge block graph using plastic building blocks, and asked which is their favourite fruit. The results are used to choose fruits to buy, which are made into a fruit salad later in the day. This lesson has lots of cross-curricular links and, most importantly, the children enjoy it."
Whether Ms Coverdale could incorporate fruit salad flying off a bridge remains to be seen.
Details of the pilot GCSE project can be found at www.21stcenturyscience.orghome .The ASE website is www.ase.org.uk. For ideas, join in the science chat in the staffroom section of The TES website: www.tes.co.uk. A resourceful science teacher - web sobriquet Woozle - has been exchanging ideas with other teachers