Real scientists spark young pupils' interest

24th August 2012 at 01:00
The Scottish Learning Festival will present the work of pupils from South Lanarkshire schools who collaborated with leading lights in physics and astronomy. Douglas Blane reports

Ask a professor a question and you expect an answer full of "hard sciency words", say the pupils at St Elizabeth's Primary in Hamilton. So when they started emailing questions to Martin Hendry, head of physics and astronomy at the University of Glasgow - as part of his project called Is There Anybody Out There? - the replies came as a pleasant surprise.

"He used our language," says Gabriella Ventisei, P6. "Like we asked why astronauts wear bright orange suits when they go into space. He said it was so people could see them easily and come and rescue them when they're in the water."

Having delivered about 250 outreach events across five continents in the past three years alone, Professor Hendry is well versed in talking to pupils. It is not about "dumbing-down", he says. "You need to know your audience. You have to get quite hard concepts across without using jargon.

"If you're talking to primary pupils, you can't assume they'll know the meaning of words like `density' or `velocity'. Postgraduate students at the University of Glasgow get communications training, and in physics and astronomy we have a sort of apprentice system, where experienced postgrads take younger ones out to schools, so they learn how to communicate."

All this meant that when South Lanarkshire schools wanted to spice up their science teaching using real scientists, what they got when they approached Professor Hendry was a whole team of them.

"I'd been an infant teacher until last session," says St Elizabeth's P56 teacher, Lorraine Sweeney. "So I was looking for science CPD. I spoke to development officer Kirstin McNeill and we looked at the outcomes together. She told us about Is Anybody Out There? and we decided to take part in it.

"It started with Martin doing a live presentation on Glow, while the children watched, listened and took notes. We then studied the science outcomes and it just grew arms and legs. In Primary 56 we decided to look at gravity and other forces that would affect life on different planets."

Alien life is a topic that never fails to interest young people, says Professor Hendry. "We've worked with a number of schools on this. What was new this time was our use of Glow to introduce the topic, rather than going out to the schools ourselves. That made it a very efficient use of researchers' time."

Academics interested in outreach have to walk a fine line, balancing career development, still largely based on their research, with their desire to communicate with schools and the general public, says Professor Hendry. "It is getting a little easier. Nowadays the research councils that fund our work specify some kind of public engagement and postgraduates in particular are happy to do that."

Using technologies such as Glow to get university science into schools is a good model for engagement with scientists in general, Professor Hendry believes. "But, personally, it was a bit less satisfying than in previous years, when I've gone out to schools myself. I enjoyed getting to meet them all. But not every academic will feel that way and video-conferencing instead is an effective use of our time."

Once inspired by that first contact, the teachers and pupils were encouraged to choose a topic for further investigation in class, to email Professor Hendry if they were puzzled about something, and to prepare a presentation at the end of the project to the scientists and to colleagues in the other schools taking part.

"It was great to have access to an expert we could ask any question we wanted," says Mrs Sweeney. "The whole thing went really well and by the end of it we had children giving presentations who, last August, would hardly have spoken in class. It was a fantastic project."

`Is There Anybody Out There?' with Martin Hendry and teachers and pupils from St Elizabeth's Primary. Scottish Learning Festival, 20 September, 1.15pm.


Julia Meinicke, P5: "We made a mini-planet out of a fish tank and put plants in it. After a couple of days, there was steam on the glass, which was condensation. It was all about the water cycle."

Oliver Cropp, P6: "We had to weigh ourselves, then work out how much we would weigh on different planets. We were heaviest on Jupiter."

Lauren Walsh, P5: "When we made our little planet, we put cress in different conditions of water and sunlight to see what they would do. It was like a scientific experiment."

Cameron Burridge, P5: "After I learned about the planets, on the news there was this new planet scientists had found in another solar system. They think it's got water on it."

Sean Gillespie, P6: "We wrote diary entries, about what we did and how we felt when we were going to Mars. We did storytelling and stuff from different areas of the curriculum."

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