Partners show path to hands-on science

21st May 2004 at 01:00
The Partnership in Primary Science project is helping teachers to be more imaginative in how the subject is taught, Eleanor Caldwell reports

If you want to change practice in teaching and learning, you have to take ownership, says Susan Rodrigues, director of the Institute for Science in Education in Scotland. Teachers involved in the Partnership in Primary Science project have learned to do just that, modelling the way scientists think and passing it on to their pupils.

The PIPS project, funded by the AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust, so far has attracted teachers from Fife, Stirling, Clackmannanshire, Perth and Kinross and West Lothian. From probationers to headteachers, they attended monthly meetings at Stirling and Edinburgh universities over a period of 10 months for PIPS 1 and six months for PIPS 2. (The next PIPS project, on digital resources, will run later this year.) Primary teachers - usually two from each participating school - were joined by secondary colleagues, advisory staff and academic and industrial scientists from as wide-ranging fields as astronomy and genetics. The emphasis was on sharing learning within this community. AstraZeneca provided each teacher with a palmtop computer so that they could communicate via the Internet.

The project was devised to inspire teachers to take a different view of science teaching, moving firmly away from the worksheet-based approach and encouraging greater use of technology. Listening to lectures and being told about science teaching was not the order of the day; from the outset, the teachers identified their own training needs and the topic areas were decided by consensus.

The participants would consider a topic, devise new methods of teaching it and bring the results of their pupils' work to the group's monthly session, where they could present and exchange ideas. This evidence-based approach dovetails well with the evidence-based principle of the chartered teacher programme, says Dr Rodrigues.

Through the project funding, schools received equipment such as digital microscopes and data loggers. Teachers were left to discover the potential of the instruments themselves. Monitoring movement using the motion sensor of a data logger, for example, was explored. In one class, a data logger monitored the speed of a toy car on different surfaces.

A key premise of the project was that teachers, like children, come to learning with some level of prior knowledge. The trick then is to make them, and hence their pupils, build on their knowledge and think beyond the content base of the scientific experiment or theory and take an innovative approach to discover the reasons.

At Pitreavie Primary in Dunfermline, P3 teacher Jennie Dale and P6 teacher Shirley McArthur are delighted with the difference that PIPS training has made to teaching and learning in their classes. Although both teachers have a strong base of science and information technology knowledge, they say the PIPS sessions have taught them to take a fresh approach. Children are encouraged to challenge ideas and examine their own theories, including their misconceptions, based on "a whole circus of experiments".

P6 work on the topic of materials from Earth has been ideal for work with a digital microscope and a temperature probe. Lessons on the planets have come to life through a series of PowerPoint presentations given by class groups to P5, P6 and P7 classes. And in a noisy classroom, pupils have used a sound data logger to monitor the frequency and level of noise and determine the reasons.

"Equipment like this leads to a much fairer and truer scientific experiment," says Ms McArthur.

Teachers at Pitreavie Primary have an informal lunchtime ICT club where ideas are exchanged and equipment is introduced. This helps to make them all aware of what is available in the school and to share the ideas gained through the PIPS project.

Ms McArthur and Ms Dale say the project has helped science to gain a new and more popular place in the curriculum for the children. They feel more involved in the subject and assume that if they want to know something, they will have to work out ways to find it out. They are keen to bring items from home and discuss science matters with their parents and siblings.

The response from parents has been particularly satisfying, says Dr Rodrigues. Teachers are being asked for advice about conducting experiments at home with enthusiastic children.

Most importantly, says Ms Dale, children are learning about applying science.

For details on the next PIPS project, contact

There will be a workshop on PIPS at the SETT show, on September 22

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