A hands-on investigative method of teaching science is turning out pupils skilled in recording data and analysis. Eleanor Caldwell reports.
As primary schools get to grips with the new environmental studies guidelines, science is coming under renewed scrutiny. At Pitreavie Primary in Dunfermline, headteacher Clare MacNeill welcomes the new 5-14 document's more focused approach.
After an HMI inspection five years ago, the school decided to review its science programme. Mrs MacNeill is on the steering committee of the Science Online Support Network (SOLSN), a Scottish Executive-backed initiative to increase the use of information and communications technology in science teaching, and this acted as a stimulus. Pitreavie Primary also has good ICT facilities.
Raising attainment and offering a new focus for science were the key priorities in the development of a programme across the school's 15 primary and one nursery class. Assistant head Beverley Allan is on SOLSN's curricular group and is a member of Fife Council's working group on science. So staff at Pitreavie included a review of the authority's curricular guidelines in their planning.
Teachers in all classes make use of SOLSN's CD-Rom, which was piloted at the school. It is designed to give practical support in lesson planning, offering a sequenced approach to topics and a deeper understanding of the fundamental scientific principles. Teacher Margaret Gibson has appreciated the ideas for teaching and investigating the P4 topics of colour and water. The colour experiments, for example, focus on the spectrum of light. In P6, the more structured teaching of electricity aims to develop better understanding of key ideas necessary for further secondary work.
From the outset, the school's science programme focuses on the development of investigative skills. In P1, familiar experiments with growing cress and beans have been adapted to develop prediction and recording skills. Using different varieties of beans leads to discussion, predictions and recording of different rates and patterns of growth.
"We use a floor book method of recording, which relies a lot on the use of colour," explains Kathryn McSkimming, the P1 teacher and the school's science co-ordinator. Big recording sheets on the floor with simple instructions give children of lower ability, in language for example, a straightforward and effective method of recording their results for assessment.
Emphasis is placed on discussion in the early years and Mrs McSkimming has been struck by the pupils' natural extension of prediction skills. Following a lesson on electrical circuits which included using crocodile clips, one P1 pupil asked her whether all light switches had crocodile clips linking the wires behind them. "I was realy impressed with that sort of thinking," she says.
Using a variety of topic-based stimuli in P1-P3, the school's programme aims to develop skills of analysis and encourage sharing of information.
P7 pupils demonstrate this while examining a variety of specimens. Looking through microscopes at cells from a pond, cells scraped from the inside of their teacher's cheek and cellular life from a spider's web, the children are keen to analyse and swap information on the evidence in front of them. "There's no movement in these pond cells," says one boy. "So they must just be plant cells."
The children have been taught the names of all parts of the microscopes and respond to instructions from their teacher, June Bouaoun, about careful handling of the equipment.
Six microscopes have been lent by the school's associated secondary, Dunfermline High, and Fife Council. Link work and in-service training for teachers in the high school's science department has led to a refining of P7 science and to more effective integration into the S1 curriculum. The pupils are currently working on 'Living Things', a unit in the secondary textbook Spotlight Science.
Posters in the science corner display bold use of scientific vocabulary such as tectonic, sedimentary and magma. They are integral to the pupils' learning and Mrs Bouaoun says the children become familiar with them as a matter of course.
"They also understand the concept and the meaning of hypothesis. So when they were working on a geology topic, they were comfortably using this new language to form their own hypotheses about volcanoes."
She points out the class's model volcanoes which, when filled with acetic acid and cochineal, created popular experiments in eruption.
Risk assessment and safety procedures also form an important part of P7 science. Pupils are encouraged to use independent research skills to establish the need for safety goggles when working with particular substances.
The science programme at Pitreavie Primary is continuously under review. However, Mrs MacNeill is pleased that the school will not have to make radical changes to fit in with the new more prescriptive 5-14 guidelines.
The school has a strong team for delivering science. As science co-ordinator, Mrs McSkimming attends staff development courses and disseminates information to colleagues. P5 teacher Shirley McArthur, who has Highers in three sciences and an interest in ICT, delivers school in-service training and provides information on relevant websites. Broad-ranging information on living things and other early biology topics is offered by P3 teacher Sheila Alderson, who has a degree in biology. Resources are gathered collaboratively, with teachers contributing materials for all levels.