Reading Bus takes a science route

7th September 2012 at 01:00
A strategy to promote functional literacy and a spirit of inquiry sees pupils dicing with the unknown, as Jean McLeish reports

Difficulties persuading young children to eat green vegetables are well known - so it's miraculous that storyteller Grace Banks has a class of eight-year-olds tucking into a nettle omelette.

"Yummy yummy, eggs and nettles," are not words you'd expect to find in the same sentence. Even for Jamie and Nigella, it's difficult to take the sting out of nettles.

But once that hurdle is crossed, Grace's omelette gets some surprisingly good reviews from the P4s at Westpark Primary in Aberdeen, ranging from "yuck" to "yummy". Their mothers will be queuing up to discover her secret.

This bold culinary adventure is just one aspect of a new strategy to promote functional literacy and science to children in Aberdeen. The project has been developed by the Reading Bus project in partnership with the Natural History Centre at the University of Aberdeen. The Reading Bus was launched in 2005 to develop children's literacy and raise attainment.

The new science venture will showcase children's writing, podcasts and films on a phone app and website, following the model of the Reading Bus Apardion project run earlier this year. It involved 3,000 pupils from 52 schools who developed work based on their exploration of the heritage and culture of 14 Aberdeen landmarks.

"Children need to develop their ability to investigate and to write from their investigations - not just copying off something and not really understanding it," says Grace Banks, a storyteller who works with the Reading Bus project.

"For them to get this hands-on work will really enhance their ability to write," she says. "Imagination can definitely come into it as well, but it needs to be their work coming from their experience."

These children have been putting nettles under the microscope during a study of materials developed by Marie Fish from the Natural History Centre at the University of Aberdeen, who is working in partnership with the Reading Bus.

Their interactive day is spent investigating nettles as a forgotten fabric, which included working with children's author Caroline Clough and taking part in spinning, experiments and cookery sessions.

This was their prize for designing the winning collage in a competition "Materials in the Natural World", run by the Natural History Centre to raise awareness of the British Science Festival in Aberdeen. Westpark Primary's work on this project and the work stations they visited are on show at this week's British Science Festival at the university (September 4-9) with a full programme for schools and families.

"I had wanted to do a project about materials for a long time, because I think it's a very exciting area of the curriculum that could be developed further," says Mrs Fish. "The big interest I have is drawing children's attention to the importance of botany - of plants in their lives - away from the obvious things like food and shelter. So it's an opportunity to look at the way plants give us fibres and how we've used that through the ages."

Back at school two weeks later, Grace Banks plays the children a podcast of their workshop. Hearing the butter sizzling in the frying pan, as the nettle omelette is prepared, brings their day vividly back to life.

"I liked looking under the microscopes because you saw things really close up. We looked at different kinds of leaves and plants," says Lennon Donegan, 9.

"We were looking at the fibres and feeling them," says Paige MacGregor, 8. "We had these green books and we had to write in what we thought of it. The fibres were nettles, bamboo, coconut, bananas, soya and jute."

"We were making a story, writing about different fibres and we were doing votes on who thinks which is the strongest," explains Logan Pirie, 8.


Fourteen Aberdeen schools are beginning to work on functional literacy and science across a range of topics. They will pilot the project before the programme is offered to schools across the city in January.

Teachers can now take part in CPD sessions to support the new science venture, which will include outcomes and experiences in line with the science curriculum. The idea is to focus on developing children's functional literacy, encouraging them to write and learn about science, supported by science mentors and writers.

"We will get an expert in the science field involved in whichever project they choose to do and there will be an experience associated with their project," says Grace Banks from the Reading Bus.

Westpark Primary was involved in a trial run of the project during an interactive day at the Natural History Centre. "It was great and everyone enjoyed all the activities," says the children's teacher, Elaine Cook.

"I liked that the children had the chance to use equipment they wouldn't normally get their hands on and to have someone there who knew what they were doing. Sometimes the language was a wee bit above the children, but they really tried to listen and understand what was going on."

Twelve pupils from schools who took part in the Reading Bus Apardion project last session visited the Scottish Parliament in June to show MSPs the podcasts, films, apps and writing they had created based on research into 14 Aberdeen landmarks.

The Reading Bus project on functional literacy and science will be based on the Apardion model, which involved 3,000 children last year., www.british

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