Save the spirit of inquiry

10th February 1995 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh explores theories about the best way to tackle Science Attainment Target 1, which deals with investigation.

Knowing how to handle apparatus isn't going to be of benefit to someone who isn't a scientist, but what does matter is being able to confront the issues which will face them as members of a democratic society." For Malcolm Oakes, director of ASE INSET Services, and a former head of science, the importance of science attainment target 1, dealing with investigation, "comes down to the question of why we want to do practical work". Sometimes, he feels, "Teachers see it from a very mechanistic point of view, as a way of learning skills. " For him, this is simply not good enough. "When you think of how much it costs to install a secondary school lab, it's got to be for much more than that. "

Science AT1 has always been a challenge for some teachers. According to the Association for Science Education, for instance, ASE Inset Services (the ASE's training arm) "is having enquiry after enquiry from member schools which have been told by OFSTED that they are not doing enough scientific investigation".

Dr Wilf Hawes, head of science at Coventry's Finham Park comprehensive since 1971, strongly supports the view that practical investigation should be an integral part of every school science topic. "It's part of the teaching process, and it doesn't always come at the end of the topic." Right at the start of their secondary school lives, for example, Year 7 pupils find themselves planning and carrying out short investigations - to find out, in one instance, what sort of cup will keep soup warm for longest.

The biggest science 1-related event at Finham Park, though, is the school's annual Materials Day, when all Year 8 pupils carry out tests on real materials - often actual production samples - with support from local industry.

The lead-in to the day, explained Dr Hawes, is meticulously planned. "The pupils choose an object or device to make from the materials being investigated. They decide what properties are most important for the purpose. They may need to visit shops to research what is made from their chosen material. They might do a literature search. And students must design and plan experiments that are fair tests of the properties of a range of materials. "

Industrial support has been impressive. Engineers, scientists and administrators, plus apprentices from up to 20 firms, including Rover, Peugeot, Lucas and Courtaulds, work alongside teams of pupils, doing tests and measurements.

The processes, as Coventry's maths and science adviser Ian Rye explains, are often not very different from what goes on in the factories. "Last week, at the Peugeot plant, I saw them measuring the viscosity of engine oil with a straightforward piece of apparatus - basically a container with a small hole in it. It was exactly the sort of thing that a primary school might do."

Ian Rye points out that Finham's work on materials, "as well as developing Science 1, has made good links with industry. It's very motivating for the pupils." (There are other spin-offs too. Dr Hawes's department has several pieces of equipment, including a sophisticated electronic balance, which have been donated by friendly firms).

A mile or two away, at Whitley Abbey, another Coventry comprehensive, head of science Bill Morris is discovering, and demonstrating to other schools, with the aid of GEST funding, how information technology can help with the whole science curriculum, and particularly Science 1. His department has eight Acorn laptops from the National Council for Educational Technology's "Portable Computers in Schools" project, and he is also experimenting with some smaller Acorn palmtops.

The computers are used mainly for data-logging, and their value lies in their ability to track two or three variables at the same time and show them as graphs on the screen. "It abolishes the time-lag between making a prediction and seeing the result," explained Bill Morris. "Traditionally the pupils would measure temperatures with thermometers and put the results in their exercise books. Then they would draw the graphs for homework, and talk about them next lesson. With IT the data appears as it happens."

He does not, though, underestimate the organisational challenge of ensuring that computers and data-loggers are in the right place at the right time with batteries charged and plugs and connectors working. "But once you've cracked the management issues it adds a whole dimension of meaning to the work. "

Bill Morris feels that laptops are ideal for the science lab "because you can take the computer to the science rather than the other way round". He acknowledges that they are expensive, though, but he knows he would be using IT even if he did not have them. "A lot of schools have older BBC computers around that could do the work. Eight machines is about the ideal number."

Emphasis on the measurement of variables, of course, is a reminder that pre-Dearing Science 1 was very much, in the words of Jane Wheatley, head of science at Highworth School for Girls, and a member of the re-write team, "a variables model". Thus, at level 6 in the old curriculum, pupils were expected to "manipulate or take account of the relative effect of two or more independent variables."

One result of that was to make it much easier to do investigations in physical science in biology - experiments with heat and light are considerably easier to manipulate and predict than are plant and animal behaviour, for example.

Jane Wheatley believes that the new document allows teachers much more freedom. Significantly, for example, the word "variable" hardly figures now in the AT 1 level descriptions. "The aim was to free up the criteria so that they would fit a wider range of practical work."

There is some irony in the fact that the study of living things, which is usually how young children first encounter science (through looking at insects and plant growth) should become, further up the age range, the most difficult strand to handle.

Teachers will welcome the news, therefore, that the Association for Science Education has a project under way, sponsored by Nuclear Electric, called "Investigating the Environment". This will, later in the year, produce a resource for teachers at all four key stages. Through case studies and guidance notes, it will help them use their environmental work with pupils outside school in such a way that it goes beyond simple observation and becomes genuine AT1 investigation.

In science, as in the other subjects, though, the most fervent plea from teachers is that this really is the last change for a long time. A look around Finham Park's departmental filing cabinets filled with beautifully prepared booklets and teacher guidance notes, all linked directly to the pre-Dearing curriculum, and all of which now have to be rewritten, brings the issue very much to life. For Wilf Hawes, in fact, rewrites have come so often that he now has a procedure for dealing with them. "After all, counting consultation documents, this is the eighth version of the science curriculum that I've read."

It was 5.30pm on a Friday in January when he said that, and he was still smiling.

* The ASE's "Investigating the Environment" project would like to hear from teachers in all key stages who are doing successful science investigations based on fieldwork. Write to: Malcolm Oakes, ASE Inset Services, Barclay's Venture Centre, University of Warwick Science Park, Sir William Lyons Road,Coventry. CV4 7EZ

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