Science is about more than making cups of tea. It's time to stir up some ideas

12th August 2011 at 01:00
Attempts to make science relevant to children needn't result in making it dreary

In early June, the Institute of Physics in Scotland was kind enough to let me speak at their annual Stirling Conference. Now, before I go any further, I'd like to address the TESS picture editor. I'm going to talk about experiments and physics here but PLEASE don't put a shot of someone with bad hair, a bow tie, googly eyes andor a soot-blackened face in the wee box. And if I'd been the chemistry teaching grandad whose story was illustrated a few weeks back with a library photo of a nutjob in a lab coat, I'd have been round your house. If it comes to that, I don't know any physics teachers who wear bow ties. Hang on . I do. In fact, one of them is on the committee that asked me to speak, but so is Heather `the Weather' Reid. Put in a picture of her.

Right, that's out of the way. My talk was entitled "Beyond the science of the banal". They wouldn't let me call it "Beyond the science of the bleedin' obvious", itself something of a compromise.

Standing in front of a lecture theatre full of my peers, hair too short to be bad, no labcoat or bow tie (reader's voice: "FFS let it go!"), I endeavoured to make my point.

The upshot of what I was trying to say concerned the occasional perils of laudable attempts to make science relevant. It has to be said that this is something that should be done and that it is more often than not the best thing to do.

Maybe I was making too much of one particular activity. When younger pupils study dissolving, it is often set in the context of making a cup of tea. They are asked to study the factors affecting the rate at which sugar dissolves, including . stirring! "NOW WHO DISNAE KNOW THAT?" I yelled, dropping my accent a gear when I made this point at Stirling. I think it's valid.

Our recruiting poster for physics teachers has rarely been better. CERN. Exoplanets. Brian Cox. At the same meeting I was ranting at, Andy Green spoke of the Bloodhound supersonic car. He's aiming to drive it at 1,000mph. Should we still be getting children to carry out experiments framed in the context of a drink they don't drink, to prove something that they've known for years?

There's plenty out there that's more interesting.

Unfortunately, I didn't have time to perfect a demonstration of one of my ideas for an alternative investigation. It involved electrically- conducting Lycra. I intended to wear some, but mis-handled it during trials and caused it to smoulder. And I have to confess: I did toy with the idea of making it into a bow tie.

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Education Research Centre.

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