They're all in this together

23rd November 2012 at 00:00
TeachMeets offer a vital networking forum for school staff in search of solutions. Douglas Blane reports

When teachers get off the treadmill for a couple of hours and meet new people in a pleasant place, you can almost see creative sparks flying between brains.

"We don't have laptops at our school," says teacher Stephen-Mark Williams, towards the end of a very well-attended TeachMeet, organised by Glasgow Science Festival earlier this year. "Do you know some way of getting funding to buy a set?"

"You could go to individual companies," replies festival development manager Rebecca Crawford. "Some teachers are incredibly successful at getting money from industry. We're putting together a case study of one teacher who raised #163;6,000 from local industries recently for just one event.

"'Persistence is important,' she tells us. She is also highly strategic and studies the Financial Times to see which companies are doing well."

Kristen Salzer-Frost, who has just delivered one of the short presentations that feature at TeachMeets, adds an industry perspective. "A case that's likely to succeed will be one for a specific purpose, where benefits are clearly identified. They don't have to be direct benefits to the company. Mine promotes engineering. So a project that contributed to that would have a good chance of success. If you just ask for computers, companies will say 'No'."

The synergy between teachers and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) ambassadors - enthusiastic industry volunteers who come into schools to liven up lessons - is the theme of tonight's TeachMeet at the University of Glasgow. The format, as always, is a set of two- or seven-minute presentations, followed by discussions, lubricated with juice, wine and nibbles. The principle is that teachers are busy people who don't need a one-hour lecture to get the point.

Aileen Hamilton, operations manager at Science Connects, sets the scene. "The UK government funds 45 organisations around the country to engage pupils in lower primary to upper secondary with STEM subjects.

"Science Connects, which manages the programme for over 1,000 schools in the West of Scotland, is one of four organisations that cover Scotland. Our aim is to see ambassadors working in every school - whether for a one-off event or a sustained relationship that lets teachers plan ahead."

Making the connection with one of the 30,000 ambassadors around the UK - 3,500 in Scotland - is surprisingly easy, say a succession of teachers describing their school projects. "A quick email to Aileen and we got six ambassadors in a few days," says physics teacher Iain Spencer, who spoke about his school's experience with the Ashfield Music Festival (TESS, 30 September 2011).

"The ambassadors were essential to its success. If it had just been two teachers talking, the kids wouldn't have engaged as they did with the outside experts."

Useful perspectives from those experts, aired at the TeachMeet, include how to make an ambassador visit more productive.

"I can come in for a whole day or for one class," says fire engineer Kristen Salzer-Frost. "But I'd like information in advance on what the teacher is trying to achieve. Pick up the phone and talk to us. I'm not from Scotland, so I don't know what half the terminology means."

"Neither do we," says a voice from the audience.

No selling is a key principle of TeachMeets. So although Susan Meikleham is here to publicise a new classroom resource from Glasgow Science Centre, she gets to speak because it's free to teachers.

"Smart Drugs are increasingly being taken to improve brain performance," she says. Is that using science to be the best we can be - or is it cheating? We are currently taking neuroscientists from the ambassador programme around schools to debate this with S3 and S4 pupils."

Teacher Drew Burret is not selling either, but he is looking for volunteers. "There's a really strong network of physics teachers, who share stuff and help each other all the time. My idea is that we tap into that to write the courses we need for National 4 and 5, Higher and Advanced Higher. Each person writes a little bit and gets access to the whole thing. It's open-source textbooks."

Other speakers include Richard Ford, whose Bearsden Academy pupils recently won the European CANSAT competition, Springburn Academy's Joanne Friel, who describes a cross-curricular project on Scottish food and drink, and Rebecca Sowden from The Glasgow Academy on the benefits of collapsed timetable days.

"I signed up as an ambassador when I was a post-doc," she says. "It was going out to schools that got me into teaching."

Student teacher Callum Mitchell introduces Edmodo, a secure social network that helps teachers and pupils to communicate. "It's like an educational Facebook," he says. "So the pupils are likely to be motivated to use it."

Finally, Claire Motion from the University of St Andrews talks about taking motorised robots into schools. "Pupils become NASA engineers and have to work together to build and launch them by lunchtime. It's a real challenge and they love it."

The benefits of being there on the night are apparent again when a teacher asks if schools beyond Fife can get these kits on loan - and Aileen Hamilton makes the connection. "We're talking to various councils about this and some are buying them for schools. We do have two kits in the office that people can borrow tonight."

Later that evening, Drew Burrett tweets about the TeachMeet: "Never shy to mooch stuff, I came home from #TMGSF12 with Lego MindStorms kit on loan from @GlasgowSciFest 7yo son was speechless!"


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