This is the one subject which most teachers are afraid of

12th March 2010 at 00:00
But Doonfoot Primary in Ayr has the ideal solution - a scientist who teaches nursery to P7 classes

Youngsters love science, and it is a vital part of the new curriculum. But it doesn't half scare some teachers. Climate change, stem cells and superbugs are fascinating, but the science in them is hardly elementary. So what's a primary school to do?

Well, it could put a science specialist on the job, and send her into classes during non-class contact time, to cover every stage from nursery to P7. That's just what Doonfoot Primary in Ayr has been doing for five years, says head Linda Nicholson - and it works well.

"It's about capitalising on the strengths of your staff. Sheila McDougall was a scientist before becoming a teacher. She didn't want a promoted post but had such a lot to offer. At the same time, many primary teachers feel intimidated by science. So now the pupils get science from a specialist and a set of great resources are being created for when Sheila retires."

Benefits to pupils don't end with knowing they can throw tough questions at their science teacher and she won't drop the ball. "You're building on skills you know they possess," she says. "So you can say, `We did that in P2 - don't you remember?'

"They are good at remembering and they recognise science. They know what it is - even the infants. I was teaching yesterday and the P1s came up holding a balloon. `When we rub this on our jumper, it sticks to the wall,' they said. `Why?'

"So together with the P6s I was teaching, we came up with an answer they were happy with and off they went. At that age, they don't want to wait until tomorrow. They need answers now."

Topical science is a key part of the new curriculum, and connecting the subject with everyday life makes it memorable and meaningful, she says. "We had investigations in the snow, and we've been looking at what makes an earthquake, studying fault lines, wondering if what happened in Haiti could happen here.

"At the start of a lesson, I'll often throw it open to them. They'll say they've been watching a programme about animals, earthquakes or space. They love getting that chance to contribute."

Having 75 minutes for each lesson means the teacher can get right under the surface of the science and use a variety of strategies - class discussion, direct teaching, investigation, experiment, peer evaluation.

"We started with 45-minute lessons," says Mrs McDougall. "But they were too short. Now we've time to go for an autumn walk or looking for bugs in the eco-garden."

Among many benefits of a science specialist, there is one drawback, she says. "I'm de-skilling the other teachers. They are teaching no science, but there will come a day when they have to."

So besides a school of switched-on scientists, her legacy also includes a programme of study that starts in the nursery. "For each outcome, I've prepared background knowledge, key concepts and questions, a list of resources, possible experiences, success criteria and cross-curricular links," she says.

"We've started using the success criteria with self- and peer-evaluation and evidence from photos and lab reports - and taking all that forward in a personal learning plan. It's about leaving Doonfoot teachers with as much as possible."

So is this a model that can be recommended to other schools?

"Undoubtedly," says Mrs Nicholson. "Our children will remember primary science for a very long time, not just for the content, but because of the way it's delivered.

"They'll have a real depth of science knowledge when they leave here. The question then is, of course, how do you pick that up and move it forward in their first year at secondary school?"


"Who has seen or heard something interesting to do with science?" Sheila McDougall asks the P6 class.

Some comment on the earthquake in Haiti and on the US President's decision to cut funds for a Moon mission. Is that a good thing, Mrs McDougall wonders.

Yes, says Steven. "Because if there's an earthquake in America and they need money to help people, they might have none left."

No, says Emma: "What about all those astronauts? They are going to lose their jobs."

Becky can see both sides. "It's a good thing and a bad thing," she says. "It's a difficult decision."

The lesson begins - investigating what helps sugar to dissolve - and the benefits of science with a specialist soon become clear. The young investigators move confidently, comfortably around the room, using equipment without conflict or mishap.

Given latitude to explore their ideas, they observe and report results, then discuss these with a teacher who probes for patterns, stimulates thinking and cements the learning. Basic scientific skills - designing a fair test, observing accurately, reporting clearly - are being learned, developed and used.

Size of sugar lumps was the factor Cameron and his partner looked at: "We talked about it and thought the smaller pieces would probably dissolve faster. We thought stirring might be important too. But you only investigate one thing at a time."

Science is different from other subjects, says Victoria, when she has cleared her flasks, dried the desk and written her report: "You investigate lots of things about the world. I like science and art, because you're not just writing stuff on paper. You get to do things. You get to be active."

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