Testing the waters
When Sue Blackburn joined children and teachers at Middleton Cheney primary school near Banbury in Oxfordshire to dig a pond in the school grounds, she had no idea what she was getting into. Several years on, the pond is the subject of a research project involving Mrs Blackburn, the children she teaches in Year 6, an academic at Warwick University and the rest of the world out there on the Internet.
Mrs Blackburn is one of 100 teachers taking part in the Primary Teacher as Scientist project, based at Homerton College, Cambridge. Funded by the Gatsby charitable foundation, a Sainsbury family trust, it aims to increase primary teachers' understanding of science. by turning turn them into budding scientists, thereby improving the quality of science education.
Many primary school teachers lack confidence in science, says project officer John Hobden. They may have dropped the subject at the age of 14, but they now find themselves having to teach and test children in basic scientific concepts as part of the national curriculum and the assessment that dovetails with it. Mr Hobden says:"We believed if we gave teachers some insight into what it's like to be a scientist, they would have a sounder basis in investigative skills and pick up a tremendous amount of basic scientific knowledge on the way. "
All teachers in the scheme receive basic science education through three workshops - on biology, physics and chemistry - and are expected to undertake a piece of science research. Mrs Blackburn has been investigating ways of reducing algae growth using barley and other straw. The possibility of a straw solution came from surfing the Internet. She then found a specialist grower in the neighbourhood who could supply her with various kinds of wheat and barley.
She and her class of 10 and 11-year-olds set about filling empty lemonade bottles with the pond water and adding the various types of straw. The academic from Warwick University is giving advice about how to analyse the samples to find what they contain when the algae are present and when the growth has been cleaned up. So far, Mrs Blackburn and her class have discovered that wheat is more effective than barley in removing algae from pond water.
"I like it because it puts you in the situation you are putting the children in," explains Mrs Blackburn. "If you are expecting children to come up with hypotheses, to test those hypotheses, and to repeat the tests, you are doing the same thing to yourself but at a higher level. It is exciting and I hope I have found something of value."
The imagination of another teacher was also sparked by an aspect of his school environment - the quarry tile flooring that created a noise problem throughout the school. Steve Blakesley, deputy head of Bryn Deva, a 300-children primary at Connah's Quay in Flintshire, is investigating the ability of a variety of materials to absorb sound across a band of wave frequencies and amplitudes."This will improve my teaching," he says. "It puts pressure on my time. But it has increased my enthusiasm so it's definitely a good thing. "
Teachers on the project come with varying degrees of scientific knowledge. Some have science degrees but many have little more than an O-level in biology. The idea for all is the same, according to Mr Hobden - that getting to grips with a piece of science research at their own level will allow them to become scientists rather than just science teachers. In some cases that level will be GCSE, in other cases it will be between A-level and undergraduate level, and in a few it will be higher still.
All the teachers who have embarked on projects have said their confidence has increased, says Mr Hobden. Some have also claimed it has brought changes in classroom practice.
Mary Pedley, who teaches 10 and 11-year-olds and is science co-ordinator at Clover Hill primary school in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, is one of those whose total science qualifications amount to O-level biology. "I was unsure before, " she says. "But the workshops have given me confidence and knowledge."
Her experiment is looking at the amount of light filtered out by various brands of sunglasses. She is conducting her research at home. Her tentative finding to date is that no matter much how much you spend, you get the same kind of result.
One teacher with a science degree is Colin Lavelle, of Ysgol Bryn Hedydd in Rhyl, Denbighshire. He has a BSc in maritime sciences and is looking at how the number of blades on a turbine affect its speed and rotation. For his project he sought the help of a local engineering firm, which has built him a scaled-down wind turbine. He now needs a wind tunnel and is planning to seek help from British Aerospace in Flintshire.
The Year 5 and 6 children he teaches are not involved in his research but they have learned about wind turbines. In fact they made wind turbines out of cardboard and had a great time, he says. "The project has kept me intellectually alive," says Mr Lavelle. "Other-wise I would have gone a bit stale. It's something I nibble away at every couple of months."
Some of the teachers say the project has been better than most in-service training courses for primary school teachers. For Mr Lavelle most INSET training is a "waste of time", badly delivered and with content that ignores individual needs. With the Primary Teacher as Scientist project teachers can shape what they do to suit their own requirements, he says.
Eventually, the findings of the teachers involved should be published. The project organisers hope the work of those who have taken part will serve as a model for teachers in training, according to Mr Hobden, and as a model for children in the classroom.
Children tend to have stereotyped images of science teachers. They are universally men with beards and white coats who conduct experiments involving explosions. But most primary teachers of science are women.
Mrs Jean McCallum, who teaches Year 4 at St George and St Teresa primary in Solihull, West Midlands, is convinced one of the most important features of the project is its attempt to break down the science teacher stereotype. She is investigating whether creeping buttercups creep downhill, that is whether buttercup runners are responsive to gravity.
She is conducting her research at home but keeping the children informed. "I want them to see I can be a scientist and learn alongside them rather than simply set them learning objectives," she says. "I also want them to learn that science can be fun and that they can go on doing it as an adult."
For further details of the Primary Teacher as Scientist project, telephone John Hobden on 01223 507176