Revved up to learn science

4th April 2003 at 01:00
Science experts are helping teachers make 5-14 classes more exciting, reports Douglas Blane

It is not often that every pupil in a mixed ability class of 28 completes a homework assignment on time and without excuses, but the P7s at Torbain Primary in Kirkcaldy, Fife, proved it can be done when they joined in the Partnership in Primary Science (PIPS) project.

"They all brought something in; that was the fantastic thing," says teacher Barbara McConnell. "The whole class was motivated, partly because we turned it into a competition, partly because it was practical rather than written work."

Young Michael Stewart confirms this. "It was good homework because we didn't have to write things down. It was a lot more fun than the usual stuff, so I did a bit extra: a presentation about what I'd done at home."

The PIPS project first began in September 2001, set up by Susan Rodrigues, now director of the Institute for Science Education in Scotland, when she was Stirling University's director of initial teacher education. It is funded by the AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust, which supports the development of resources for science teachers.

Primary and secondary teachers from different schools were brought together with physicists, astronomers, chemists, medical scientists, science advisers and technology experts and collaborated through meetings and online forums to develop science materials and activities for the classroom. The teachers took a little time to get used to the content being devised by themselves, says Dr Rodrigues, but soon adapted to the idea with enthusiasm.

"The teachers gained confidence and the interest and attainment of their pupils increased over the 10 months of the project.

"It worked well for a number of reasons, one of which is that the people involved were open to challenges and willing to take risks."

The spirit of adventure is also apparent among participants in the second project, which retains the model of a community of practitioners but has an additional focus on science homework.

"What I found on the course is people who are willing to have a go," says Ms McConnell. "I'm quite happy if things don't work out and it's good for the children to see that sometimes.

"The course is challenging because it makes us reassess our teaching and learning and try out new things. At first it's not easy to think of something to work on, but you're getting input from secondary teachers, scientists and advisers and that's great. When you're sharing ideas it's amazing what you can come up with."

The PIPS2 community of 15 primary and two secondary teachers, six scientists and an information and communications technology expert is developing resources and lessons for a variety of 5-14 science topics. Ms McConnell's group chose forces and friction, so she asked her pupils to find or make several vehicles, test them out on different surfaces and bring the best into school to take part in a class competition.

"I tried the cars on a carpet, on wooden surfaces and on chairs," says Jennifer Leigh. "There was a light one that went well, so I took it into class. It went furthest on the wood, because the carpet is bumpy so it has more friction. That's a force that slows the car down."

One feature of the assignment which Ms McConnell initially had not considered was how many skills, in terms of 5-14 science, were being developed: understanding a task, planning a practical activity, predicting - "I got them to write down which vehicle they thought would win and why" - observing and measuring, fair testing - "they all wanted to win the competition, so they were very insistent about making it fair" - recording, reporting and presenting, interpreting and evaluating.

"This project ends in June and if there is another phase next year I'd like to take part," says Ms McConnell. "It has given us teachers the opportunity to reflect on our practice and try out new things. I've learned to use the webcam, for example, and I'm starting to integrate ICT more into my lessons, which is quite a challenge. I feel I've made big strides."

Materials developed during PIPS1 should be made available shortly by Improving Science Education 5-14, for Science Education, tel 0131 650

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