'There's a science lesson in those bricks'

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Judy Vincent's pupils love nothing better than playing cholera victims and rolling over dead. At least, that was the theme of the day last week. Before that they were into comparing the stinging and palliative effects of nettles and dock leaves.

In Judy Vincent's lessons at Clare Middle School in Suffolk, if it moves, it's a subject for scientific analysis, even for pupils as young as nine. "However young, they know that if they sting themselves on a nettle they can rub it better with a dock leaf, she says. "And by grinding them down and testing them, they find that the nettle is a strong acid and the dock leaf a strong alkali. They neutralise each other."

Cholera inevitably appeals to the morbid imaginations of the young. But it is the follow-on from the drama, the discussions about health, the cycles of life and human science that they soon get hooked on, she says.

She is one of a growing band of zealots for the Association for Science Education's Science and Technology in Society (SATIS) initiative aimed at making the subjects interesting, understandable and relevant. It started as an initiative to enliven the former GCE and CSE lessons and is now the most significant school and college business-links scheme on the science agenda. After expanding to take in A-levels and GNVQs, their vocational alternative, it has expanded to cover the 8-14 age range under director John Stringer, who wants it extended right down the school.

The latest developments have created a new 150 science units, such as those used at Clare Middle School, all with an industrial application. Funding for the new phase has exceeded Pounds 500,000, generated from industrial sponsorship across a range of small to giant companies.

Malcolm Oakes, in-service education director at the association and a founder member of SATIS, says: "Our success comes from having teams of teachers who can write materials in a user-friendly way and experts from industry who can give us the necessary technical advice."

The project, which started in the 1980s, was cleverly pitched at big industry. As a result there were considerable figures behind it, attracting cash from influential companies. Sir Denis (now Lord) Rooke was its chairman, bringing in support from the likes of British Gas and the CEGB.

"We have always had links with people at the highest level to supply finance and expertise," said Malcolm Oakes, who was also a creator of the earlier Science in Society which put education on the industry map well before the Education Business Partnerships and training and enterprise councils were dreamt of.

But the mood is infectious. For Judy Vincent, no company is without likely resources for SATIS. "I am looking at a local brickworks and thinking about the science of clay. There must be something in it for us," she says.

There are no aspects of industry closed to SATIS work. Most teachers involved develop their units, based on the teaching styles fostered under the scheme, styles which give pupils a free hand in developing their own inquiries.

Children at Clare Middle School have explored a whole series of science experiments on the theme of babies' nappies.

"Testing babies' nappies, how good their water-retaining properties are, their strengths and whether they tear - the pupils love doing that sort of work and it teaches them a great deal of science," says Judy Vincent.

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