Science sparks young minds

18th May 2012 at 01:00
The basics of scientific investigation are being unravelled during Little Scientist Days in Aberdeen. Jean McLeish is enlightened

Some of them are not long out of nappies - but chemistry like this is designed for three-year-olds. A flask of bright purple liquid and two flasks of clear liquid sit on the bench alongside a stand full of test tubes.

Children will use a pipette to squirt the purple liquid into each of the flasks of clear liquid and watch what happens. One flask of clear liquid turns pink, the other turns blue.

Some teachers are understandably nervous about teaching experiments to toddlers. But scientists like Calli Buchanan have built expertise working with pre-school children at Little Scientist Days at Satrosphere Science Centre in Aberdeen.

They are now guiding teachers with safe and simple strategies for introducing very young children to the magic of science and the basics of scientific investigation.

"In our science CPD for early years we do actually show them all of the science outcomes for early years," says Mrs Buchanan, education officer at Satrosphere. "We find a lot of teachers are afraid of a lot of the topics, so our goal is to find out which topics they are anxious about and then give them ideas on how they can tackle those."

Education teams from science centres across Scotland have been working collaboratively to develop ideas they can share with teachers to give nursery-aged pupils an understanding of CfE early years experiences and outcomes for science. These include "Planet Earth", "Forces, Electricity and Waves", "Biological Systems", "Materials" and "Topical Science".

The team here encourages teachers to use glove puppets like collie dog Scruffy as a mascot to help introduce ideas to very young children - they learn about recycling by helping Scruffy sort the rubbish in his basket. Next to Scruffy is a small electric circuit, where children illuminate the light bulb using the switch to learn elementary facts about electricity.

Teachers are shown how they can use story sacks with picture books and soft toy props as a starting point for science and a springboard to cross- curricular learning, bringing in other subjects like art and music.

The illustrated storybook Whatever Next?, by Jill Murphy, tells the story of a bear that wants to go to the moon. "So you talk to the children about rockets, about gravity, which is another topic teachers might want to shy away from," says Mrs Buchanan. "But it's very simple - get the children to jump up in the air and they fall back down again."

Teachers are shown how to use a version of the scientific method with children. "You get pupils in your class to make an observation and ask a question about it - form a hypothesis or answer to the question and then conduct an experiment to test it," she says.

The key is to choose something relevant to children that will excite and inspire them: "You could ask them what their favourite TV show is and investigate some aspect of that. You can really use anything as a prompt for scientific investigation."

This afternoon Mrs Buchanan is demonstrating one of the hands-on experiments children can do to see a chemical reaction.

"The purple solution is red cabbage juice in hot water and it's being added to baking soda in water, which goes blue, and vinegar, which goes pink - just really simple things they can use to excite children about actual chemistry and lab work. You can teach them how to use the pipette and little test tubes."

Satrosphere is running CPD sessions for teachers in their own schools on request and for teachers across the authority at the science centre on behalf of Aberdeen City Council.

For further information, visit or call their education team on 01224 640340

Bugging out at the Satrosphere Science Centre

There is a bit of an ugly bug ball at Satrosphere Science Centre - a joy for small children but probably a bit yuck for some of their teachers.

Among a collection of wonderful stuff in the lab like "Slim" the life-size skeleton are boxes and tanks full of creepy crawlies - definitely not for the squeamish.

"This is our own collection of mini-beasts, so we do our own live bug- handling sessions with children as well," says Satrosphere's education manager, Gemma Catton.

This collection includes African snails, stick insects and cockroaches. Mrs Buchanan lifts one out for closer inspection: "This is a hissing cockroach. There are over 3,500 species of cockroach - we've only got two of them at Satrosphere," she says.

Older children are allowed to handle these, but they're mercifully out of bounds for toddlers: "Three-year-olds and under can't hold or touch them, though - just because they put their fingers in their mouths a lot," says Mrs Buchanan.

She and colleagues will be running a summer school with science CPD for primary teachers from 6-8 August in partnership with Aberdeen City Council. "Teachers do need to do science with any age group and there's a push from the government as well to get more science in school," says Mrs Buchanan. "So we are seeing more and more demand for science for little ones and we're trying to help teachers who aren't too sure about it."

Satrosphere is to play a key role in delivering a schools programme when Aberdeen hosts the British Science Festival in September. "It's going to be a very exciting week for science in Aberdeen," says Dr Catton.

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