Science with a sparkle

27th February 1998 at 00:00

Mark Twain understood the power of stories to further our understanding of the world. They have the magic, he wrote in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to "make you run into the backyard at night and stare up into infinity to see what's there".

For those of us educated in the Gradgrind school of science - with the wonders of nature seemingly reduced to a litany of dry, hard facts - a few guiding stories to fire the imagination might have come in handy.

For primary school teachers too, few of whom are trained in science, and many of whom lack confidence teaching it, narrative, or even poetry, might prove an easier and more enjoyable way into the subject.

This is the thinking behind Science, Technology and Reading for Primary Schools(STARburst). Funded by Esso and backed by the Design Council and the Royal Society of Chemistry, STARburst provides a simple template for teachers to tackle science and technology using story for inspiration.

Already piloted in 20 primary schools throughout the UK, STARburst is due to be published later this year. It consists of a booklet of projects which starts with stories (S); moves on to talking (T) about science within the stories;activities (A) about the particular science; and resources (R) teachers might use. Each project concludes with suggestions for how it might "burst" across the curriculum and link with other subjects.

It includes a specially commissioned poem, "Chocolate", by Michael Rosen, which describes how a small boy, given some chocolate at a party, keeps it "safe" in his fist until he reaches home. The talk that follows centres on melting and solidifying and the properties of solids and liquids.

Activities include melting, freezing and taking and comparing temperatures.

STARburst also bases discussion and activities about sound and vibration on Quentin Blake's Mrs Armitage on Wheels, a funny story about a quirky woman who attaches hooters, musical instruments and even a stereo tape player to her bicycle. Finally, the subject of gravity is tackled through Henrietta Branford's Spacebaby - the story of Moses, sent to earth to save people from floating off the planet and for whom talking about Sir Isaac Newton and his discoveries is as everyday as bread and butter.

Michael Rosen approves of the approach. He says: "Change interests me - the way breath appears on windows, for example; stories of discovery in the natural world - these are what I write about. It's only our culture that divides science so ruthlessly from other subjects, and science teaching that keeps the sensual and narrative at arm's length."

Both the Design Council and the Royal Society of Chemistry had approached Esso, which was looking for ways of teaching literacy through other curriculum subjects, with a view to putting together technology and science material that started with stories. Eileen Barlex, senior education manager at the Design Council, was inspired when she visited the Innovations Centre at Queen's University, Belfast. "I was bowled over by what I saw," she says. "Modern tales of technology are like fairy stories. They are fabulous, and I just thought, 'Why don't we tell it through story?'

"Draw a diagram of the tongue when teaching about the senses and you might have 1 per cent of the class interested. Use Toad's description of toast dripping with butter, or Alice's drink, and you have everybody interested. The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch [by Ronda Armitage] spawned models of pulley systems in many primary classrooms. What we need is more of this."

STARburst author Michael Hollins, who teaches science education at the Roehampton Institute, says: "Most primary teachers are confident using stories, but many feel they lack expertise in science. Linking creativity in stories with discovery in science is something I have done at Roehampton. Teachers find it attractive; it unlocks their enthusiasm."

For further information, contact Kieran Corless at Educational Communications Tel: 0171 453 4646

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