Where science takes flight
It is obvious to a science show audience that these are great fun. But finding lasting educational benefits, when presenters have packed their props and left a school, takes more time and effort.
"We have now inspected all the outreach delivered by Generation Science," says Jack Jackson, former national specialist for science at HMIE. "We went into schools, watched the shows, spoke to heads, teachers, children and performers. It was fascinating."
Commissioned by the Scottish Government's Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser, this was the first ever inspection of the science outreach that primary schools increasingly use to spice up the subject and help deliver A Curriculum for Excellence.
A wide variety of individuals, groups, universities, science centres and festivals now offer outreach to schools, and many seek qualitative feedback from audiences. None had previously agreed to educational input from the inspectors.
"We don't aim just to motivate and entertain," says Simon Gage, director of Edinburgh International Science Festival, the parent organisation of Generation Science. "We want pupils and teachers to understand more science than before once we've been to their school.
"We were less confident in our skills as educators, though, than as scientists and entertainers. We were looking for advice on how to improve educationally."
Funding the science show study was a logical next step for the Scottish Government, following last year's inspections of all Scotland's science centres. These identified good practice and made recommendations to which the centres are still responding.
A key theme arising from both sets of inspections is the need to engage children intellectually, not just at a practical level. A hot-air balloon workshop illustrates the point, says Dr Gage.
"This was originally more a craft than a science project, with children following instructions and little scope to discuss or work in groups. Following the inspection, we now get them to think more about the science and the principles of flight - why a balloon rises, what makes a good or bad design.
"We are not making it harder or less inclusive. We are getting them to engage with the real science."
While recognising that each type of science outreach - shows and workshops - has its merits, the inspectors find more educational benefits in the latter. Shows can generate great enthusiasm and excitement, but can sometimes be undemanding educationally, says Professor Jackson. "Comedy can predominate at the expense of scientific understanding."
Workshops, on the other hand, "involve active learning and give pupils the opportunity to practise and develop scientific and technological skills"."
Other self-evaluation issues raised by the inspectors, and relevant to all science outreach, include the quality of pre- and post-visit materials, the training of presenters and the desirability of targeting lower secondary schools as well as primaries. A range of new topics could be tackled, say the inspectors - including forensic science, genetics, space, endangered species, earth science and major Scottish health issues.
An important question for the inspectors was whether schools which make heavy use of science outreach do so to complement or reinforce existing good science provision.
"We found it is the latter," says Professor Jackson. "Schools are using outreach to enrich existing good science programmes. That is a very positive outcome."
Generation Science is currently responding to the inspectors' recommendations, with new and improved shows and workshops, says Simon Gage.
"We are modifying all of them to fit the models of good practice identified by the inspectors. It will take time, but it is a great leap forward.
"It will give us a product in which we have complete confidence educationally."
Fossil Detectives is one of several new post-inspection workshops from Generation Science that exemplify the inspectors' guidance on science outreach, says events development manager Heidi Bartlett. "A lot of dino-digs are just bone sets in stone, with kids scraping away to reveal the structures. We will be getting them to think about what we know and how we know it. We will set up a dig, like that of real palaeontologists, using a whole dinosaur skeleton discovered by an eight-year-old boy."
At the heart of the inspectors' guidance - and the new science curriculum - lies a vital shift from presenting science as a fixed body of facts to engaging young people with the creative, curious, constantly-changing way of looking at the world familiar to real scientists. "Often the only honest answer in science is: 'We don't know for sure,'" says Heidi. "'But let's look at the evidence.'"