'Science isn't men in white coats'

12th March 2010 at 00:00
Laura Macfarlane named UK primary science teacher of the year

Some teachers get flowers from their pupils; some get perfume, says Laura Macfarlane at Milngavie Primary. "Here's what I get." She holds up a sun-bleached sheep's skull.

"Or this," she says, lifting a deer's head with pointed antlers from the bone-covered classroom table.

Even the parents get in on it, she says. "A mother who is a vet sent me dog and cat teeth. I get shells, crabs, seeds, bones - even a dead mouse once, which I wasn't delighted with. But it shows the children are getting the idea. Science isn't men in white coats. Science is all around us. Science is everything."

It is an approach that helped Mrs Macfarlane win this year's UK primary science teacher of the year award from the Association for Science Education - which recognises innovative and creative work that contributes to science development in school and engages children in the excitement of science. It brings a certificate, pound;1,000 for equipment, and six digital devices for recording heat, light and sound and displaying them on a computer.

"It was a great thing for me and the children," says Mrs Macfarlane. "It's not my award; it's our award."

It was also significant for primary teachers in general - who are often uneasy with science - because Mrs Macfarlane is an unusual science specialist, having studied no science at university - "apart from the small amount you get in a B.Ed course".

"I'm not a scientist. I'm a primary teacher. But we teach history and we're not historians. We teach computing and a lot of us have limited computer skills. So of course we can teach science."

But Mrs Macfarlane confesses to some trepidation when first taking the job, five years ago, of teaching science during non-class contact time, two days a week in 40-minute periods, to every class in school.

"It seemed such an enormous task," she says. "I had always taught infants too, but would be teaching the whole school. We've had great support from the management, though, and I've been able to adapt the Argyll and Bute science programme, which was our core syllabus.

"I've gone through Curriculum for Excellence - which I think is fantastic - audited what we were doing, and married that to the experiences and outcomes.

"People get frightened by the new curriculum. But that showed me we were covering the main elements already. Where we weren't, I looked for new resources, with the help of a primary-secondary liaison group we put together in the cluster."

There are lots of resources, organisations and experts out there that can help a primary teacher with science, says Mrs Macfarlane.

"We've just finished Clyde in the Classroom for this year, when the kids released the fish they'd been looking after since hatching. I told them it was like their mum waving goodbye when they go to university. It's been hugely successful across the school, because it's not about how clever you are, but about knowing enough to keep these little things alive - and about everyone working together."

Science outreach from the STEM Ambassadors scheme brings new faces into the classroom - which always stimulates the children, she says. "They give you a list of ambassadors and you pick the ones you want. So we've had a biologist working with the children on extinct and endangered species.

"We've had Bjoern Seitz, a nuclear physicist at Glasgow University, who talked to them about energy. They thoroughly enjoy it. These people bring knowledge, experience and equipment we don't have in schools.

"The children love the idea that university scientists think their science important enough to take time off their own work to talk to them."

Another invaluable resource is PrimaryScience.net, she says. "It has loads of virtual experiments - on curling-stones for friction or bunsen burners for heat. The kids love it and it's not expensive. The ideal would be real experiments, but with limited resources you can't always do that."

Time is another constraint on what's possible with primary science, says Mrs Macfarlane - "There's never enough of it" - and what happens when the pupils first go to secondary school is a concern.

"But that is something we're very aware of in East Dunbartonshire. It's also where Curriculum for Excellence is so good. If we follow that and stick to it, they will all be going up with the same knowledge, skills, language and confidence in science."



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