Science centres help lessons go with a bang

28th October 2011 at 01:00
In a bid to create productive partnerships with schools, science hubs around the country are developing new workshops and activities for pupils to visit - and even lending out boxes of resources. Douglas Blane reports

Pupils and teachers can take more away from a visit to a science centre than wide eyes and a headful of new ideas. They can borrow boxes of resources, for instance, from Dundee Science Centre, containing solar panels, wind turbines, underwater optical instruments and all manner of interactive kit for the classroom.

"It's sets of equipment linked to the workshops we deliver, which pupils can use in projects but teachers probably don't have," says Hannah Crookes, director of science learning and public engagement. "We want productive partnerships with schools and teachers."

It's a repeated refrain around Scotland's science centres, all of whose education teams have been beavering away to develop workshops and activities for the new session that complement the curriculum and enhance understanding, from early years to secondary and beyond.

"We have a series of days in November to celebrate the International Year of Chemistry," says Sharon Macnab, science learning manager at Glasgow Science Centre. "There's a new show for instance on Sellotape, fireflies and the science of glowing in the dark. We want to bring chemistry to life, look at unusual instances, see where it happens in everyday life."

Science centres also work in partnership with universities and industry, as well as organisations such as the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre (SSERC). "So we have a new workshop from the University of Strathclyde, which uses food and cooking to illustrate chemical principles," Ms Macnab says.

"Then there's Biofuelling the Future with the University of Glasgow, in which pupils study biodiesel synthesis, analyse samples and compare them with industry standards using bomb calorimetry and gas chromatography."

Other new activities include a structured outreach debate on pills to make you smarter, an exploration of the genetics and evolution of taste and a day devoted to engineers and engineering. "Research shows that young people often don't know anything about it," Ms Macnab says.

"Our overall aim is to enhance and support what schools do and to provide access to expertise and high-specification equipment they just don't have."

That access is not always straightforward, though, especially for rural schools or those in deprived areas, says Gemma Catton, education manager at Satrosphere in Aberdeen. "So travel funding from the Scottish Government helps support school visits to science centres. It enables us to reach a diverse audience and makes the science centres more accessible."

That audience goes well beyond science teachers and pupils with a serious science interest, she says. "All our shows and workshops link to Curriculum for Excellence. We work closely with the School of Education at the University of Aberdeen to make sure we're up to speed with the curriculum.

"Science is the focus but a lot of it's cross-curricular, linking to literacy, maths, health and well-being. This year we had a monster creepy- crawly exhibition at the time of the Word Festival at the University. So we got the kids to handle the bugs, then write wee poems about what they felt and looked like and how they moved."

New activities and workshops for schools in the near future at Satrosphere include renewable energy workshops, lab activities with NHS scientists, an exhibition about waste, little scientist days for pre-schoolers and dialogue and debate on scientific issues for secondary schools.

"That's one we developed and trialled with schools after our education team went on Dialogue Academy training," Ms Catton says. "It's about techniques to facilitate discussion and make sure everyone in a class makes a contribution. It's very effective."

More discussion in the science classroom is one aim of the new curriculum, and the science centres are leading the way. "We've introduced Let's Talk workshops," says Christine Angus, education manager at Our Dynamic Earth.

"We deliver them from Primary 4 right up to the baccalaureate. We talk about body language, how to stand and move, the pitch and tone of your voice. It's a fun, interactive two-hour workshop which we developed with Bob Kibble at Edinburgh University."

Overall numbers visiting the science centres from schools have risen slightly over the past year, they say. A trend at Our Dynamic Earth is a shift towards more secondary pupils. "It's currently 40 per cent and growing," Ms Angus says. "So recently we've been developing more workshops linking to the secondary curriculum.

"We have a new one called Scotland's Energy of the Future, which is highly interactive and gets them to work out the best balance of different energy technologies to meet the country's carbon requirements. That is going down well."

Pre- and post-visit materials on science centre websites, many developed by teachers, help schools to prepare for a visit and reinforce the learning afterwards. "We've had teachers in residence working on Curriculum for Excellence support materials, which we're rolling out now through our CPD courses," says Ms Crookes at Dundee Science Centre.

"Topics were chosen by the teachers. So we've new ones on renewable energy and on the seashore, with resources, activities and cross-curricular links to science, literacy, numeracy, health and well-being.

Scotland's science centres are not just places to go for a fun day out with kids, Ms Crookes says. "They are more than that. We work with schools and teachers to enhance the learning and provide professional development for teachers and real support for Curriculum for Excellence."


For school visits to the science centres:

Dundee Science Centre, contact Hannah Crookes

Glasgow Science Centre, contact Sharon Macnab

Our Dynamic Earth, contact Christine Angus

Satrosphere, contact Gemma Catton www.satrosphere.netEducation.

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