Stephen Breslin

1st June 2012 at 01:00
The new chief executive of the Glasgow Science Centre discusses his recent background at FutureLab, the `double-edged sword' of Curriculum for Excellence and his ambitions to bring scientific experiences to life for young learners. Interview by Elizabeth Buie.

What sparked your interest in science when you were young?

I was always very interested in planes - I used to love aircraft. I wanted to understand how planes flew, how they were powered. I wanted to understand about their engines, the aerodynamics. My mother was a librarian in Blackridge in West Lothian, and for a small library it had a disproportionate number of books on science and engineering - all books I had personally requested.

What did you do at FutureLab, before coming here?

FutureLab is now 11 years old and it was set up to be a catalyst for innovation where we would look at how technology could be used to enhance the learning experience. We would work with a small number of schools on projects to develop case studies of how to best employ this new method of teaching or this new technology and use that as an exemplar to push others to be more innovative in their own teaching.

What effect did it have?

It worked very well to an extent. But we got to the stage where we would, in equal measure, excite teachers about the possibilities but frustrate them because they didn't know how to take it forward themselves. So we created a model of support where we would go into individual schools and work with them.

How did that work?

We worked with them for a period of a year or a year-and-a-half to develop their own capacity to be innovative and creative in their teaching, recognising that best practice can't be easily transplanted because every school is different, every classroom is different.

You are familiar with the highly prescriptive curriculum in England. What do you think of Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence?

It's much better, but it's a double-edged sword, because on the one hand it creates opportunities to design much richer learning experiences for kids; on the other, it creates much more work for the teacher in actually creating those learning experiences - and I think teachers are already very heavily loaded in terms of work. It's an area in which the science centre can help, because we can focus on a number of areas directly aligned to the curriculum - those areas we know teachers struggle with.

What's your `big idea' for developing the Glasgow Science Centre?

I want the science centre to be a place where people come and do science - not see science, but do science.

How do you make that happen?

We've got a team of science communicators on the floor and they are really the people that bring the science centre to life. We put a lot of work into exhibit design and construction - they're all great, but it's the interaction with the science communicators that really does it.

Who are the communicators?

We've got some really well-qualified people who are all scientists - most of them degree-qualified, some to PhD level. They're young and enthusiastic and know how to engage with an audience. It's an engagement which is fun, but we're delivering serious messages, and it's accessible. The format is: here's the fun bit so we get kids engaged; here's what you need to learn and here's the application of that learning.

How will you know when you've succeeded?

For me, it's about how we make people feel. I want to spark their curiosity; I want them to go away feeling excited. I want them to come here and have really positive experiences so that they will have really positive associations with science and technology. The best things we can equip our children with just now are: curiosity and a love of learning - and that comes from creating really positive experiences round about learning.

You were quoted in 2009 by The Guardian as having been `bitterly' disappointed in your own schooling - true?

Yes, unfortunately. All kids have a fire in their belly where they want to learn about the world around them, and they are curious. There are two ways you can turn that off - one is by not feeding that fire, so for people like myself, I just couldn't get enough of it and I couldn't find somebody to help me down that journey; I was doing it all myself. The other way to turn kids off is by feeding that fire with boring, irrelevant material that just doesn't engage them. For me at the science centre, it's less important what kids learn when they come here; it's more important how we make them feel and I want to excite them about science and technology.

How did you get over that?

It was when I got to university. Suddenly I was working in an environment with some really smart people, really excited about the potential of what I could do, and that changed things for me.

What is your favourite exhibitsection at the Glasgow Science Centre?

I've got two: there's a small section on flight, and I love playing about with the aero-foils and seeing how the air flow changes the lift; and the other is Mindworks - a collection of art which demonstrates an interesting phenomenon to do with the way we perceive the world and the way images are interpreted by the brain. I'm also excited to see the development of the Bodyworks exhibition, which is coming in early 2013.

Personal profile

Born: Airdrie, 1968

Education: St Patrick's High, Coatbridge; B.Eng, University of Strathclyde; MSc in control systems engineering, University of Sheffield; PhD in aircraft flight control systems, University of Strathclyde.


Yard (now BAE Sema), seconded to Clyde Submarine Base, Faslane; Graham Technology, a Scottish software firm; CEO, Kelvin Institute; chief executive, FutureLab Education; CEO, Glasgow Science Centre, 1 May 2012- present.

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