Winners fly with a buzz

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
This year's TESPfizer Primary Teacher of Science Awards went to those who brought excitement to classroom investigations. Carolyn O'Grady spoke to the winners

"There is no template for success," says Betty Preston, one of the judges of this year's TESPfizer Primary Teacher of Science Awards. "We were looking for good classroom practice and innovative approaches."

But the key feature of the awards, run in conjunction with the Association for Science Education, was "buzz". Teachers who won tended to be "lively and enthusiastic and their pupils really switched-on, confident learners of all abilities".

This year, entrants displayed a greater use of ICT, including electronic microscopes and palmtop computers, with a growing emphasis on investigation and cross-curricular work. Science gardens, science clubs, science challenges and industry links flourished in the winners' schools, as did parents' support for homework activities and imaginative parents'


The awards, set up by pharmaceutical company Pfizer in 1994, recognise the contribution of a whole school in delivering exciting science teaching, as well as in celebrating the skills of individual teachers. Out of nearly 100 nominations, five regional winners each receive pound;750 for their school to spend on science and pound;500 to use as they wish.

Wales and South-West Jon Murphy Llandogo Primary School, Llandogo, nr Monmouth, Wales

Not many teachers swing from the rafters during a science lesson. But then, few teachers are qualified hang-gliding pilots who have made and tested hang-gliding sails before doing a BEd.

Jon Murphy says he has led "a packed life", including work in retail distribution and as an exchange student in a Californian "magnet" school for science and technology. But it was during his time as a sail-maker that an apprentice suggested he would make a good teacher. The idea took root and he is now a teaching head in a fast-growing village school. He has a passion for science in all its forms.

"There is a great link between what I was doing in sail-making and my approach to science now, in that it involves divergent thinking and creativity," he says. All of which was very much on display at a recent Science Year parents' evening, which featured 15ft projectors showing children's work on planets and lifecycles.

Recently, the local authority asked the school to test palmtop computers. "Every child has one of these, and it means that they can gather information wherever they are," he says. "They've taken their pulses on the playing field, for example, and recorded the information via their palmtops on to a spreadsheet."

Mr Murphy says that investigative work is "part of the culture of education at the school. We try to instill investigative skills from very early on, starting with 'What do you think is going to happen?' and leading up to 'How do you manipulate these variables?'" The school has created an organic garden which developed a caterpillar problem. The children investigated ways to reduce the caterpillars' numbers and came up with the idea of bird boxes to attract birds that would eat the caterpillars.

And why was he hanging from the rafters? The school is built in the style of a Swiss chalet with exposed beams - that lesson was all about gravity.

Teaching tip: "Don't be predictable. Lessons should be an adventure, with something mysterious lurking around the corner. If they don't know what's coming next, children are stimulated and motivated."

Scotland and North-EastKay Coverdale Wheatlands Primary School, Redcar, Cleveland

"Science was my favourite subject at school and I did a combined science degree because I didn't want to miss out on anything," says Kay Coverdale, the youngest of the winners at 27.

Her first job was at Wheatlands and she soon became science co-ordinator in this fast-growing school, with 400 pupils and above-average SATs results.

She runs an after-school science club, has organised the school's participation in the ASE Science Challenge and established productive links with local industry and York University.

Wheatlands has two science gardens, both of which are the responsibility of the pupils. One is for wildlife investigations, the other a natural flower garden.

"Science has a huge profile in our school," she says. "We try to link it to everything, and we try to make it as creative as possible." In a recent art project on "healthy eating", for instance, children made a collage of a healthy plate of food.

"I also try to relate science investigations to real life and children's personal experience," she says. "One investigation on fruit was based on a story about a little boy who didn't like fruit (Oliver's Fruit Salad). So we looked at fruits that you peel and those you don't and at what senses are the best for sorting out fruit. I kept relating it back to the story."

Teaching tip: "A lot of my work is investigation. If you give them a scenario and ask them: 'Is this correct?' they like to prove you wrong.

"We did an investigation into what makes a perfect cup of tea. I suggested that the best way was to put my tea bag in the cup, pour cold water in and put it in the microwave. They tested various methods with taste and sight and found that I was using the wrong method - which delighted them."

Midlands Vicky Reeves Grafton Infants' School Stoke on Trent

Vicky Reeves was a nursery nurse before becoming a teacher. But she has been interested in science "since primary school" and started an Open University science degree while still working at the nursery.

Impatient to become a teacher, she switched to a B.Ed, specialising in science and PE. She has now been at Grafton for four-and-a-half years as science co-ordinator. An inner-city school with 290 pupils in a fairly deprived area, it manages to attain above-average SATs. Vicky has established a science club and organised a Science Sacks project, whereby each week children take home one of 30 sacks filled with science materials such as magnets and torches.

"Science is linked with other subjects all the time," she says. When, for instance, the school was looking at The Gingerbread Man during literacy hour, in science the pupils investigated the best biscuit from which to make a gingerbread man. "I always try to start a lesson in a really exciting way. I often start with: 'We've got a problem we want you to help investigate.'"

To raise the profile of science, Ms Reeves organised a parents' evening devoted to the subject. Year 2 children carried out activities with the parents, such as making a circuit.

Teaching tip: Ms Reeves recently asked a support assistant to dress up as Cinderella and visit her class complaining that the bathroom she had to clean was in a mess and she couldn't go to the ball. The task was to find the best material for cleaning up the water on the floor. Pupils tested foil, a sheet of plastic, a paper towel, a sheet of paper and a sponge for absorbency.

Having decided on a fair test, they had to make sure they used the same amount of water and the same amount of material in each case. The learning objective was: "We are learning how to explain to other people what we have found out." Later, in groups, they presented their findings to other groups, then other classes.

Northern Ireland and the North-West Shehnaz Vorajee Brindle Gregson Lane Primary School, Preston

It was voluntary work in a local primary school that convinced Shehnaz Vorajee, who was then doing a bio-medical science degree at Bradford University, that teaching science was for her.

She got an offer of a job as a science co-ordinator before she had even finished her PGCE, and started at Brindle Gregson Lane six years ago. She became an advanced skills teacher in January 2002.

Her first task is to support staff in her own school to carry out investigative science. She organises an after-school science club and works with high schools to bridge the gap between primary and secondary schools.

To instill that "wow factor", she says: "I pose a problem that gets them inquiring. For example, during work on micro-organisms I showed them dry yeast and asked: 'Is it living or non-living?'" It was an unexpected question and the children were keen to know the answer. She put the yeast under an electronic microscope and added water, sugar and flour. "You could see the yeast producing carbon dioxide bubbles. They were open-mouthed," she says.

At the beginning of June, the school held a science week. To prepare for it Year 6 pupils took a short training course in asking differentiated questions to younger pupils. In the week itself the Year 6 children carried out peer tutoring and manned stations where they carried out investigations.

"We set a lot of little homework projects," she says. "For example, we asked parents and children to find as many containers as they could with the words 'anti-bacterial' on them. It was amazing how many resources came in."

Teaching tip: "I use investigations based on past science SATs questions to do practical work. A few years ago, for instance, there was a question about sugar-coated sweets. It asked why, when the sweets were placed in water, did the water turn red and asked what happened to the sugar coating. We did this as a practical."

London and the South-East Rachel Marsh West Malling CE Primary School, Kent.

After gaining a degree in Home Economics, Rachel Marsh went on to do her PGCE in Wales, specialising in science.

"I try to give the children a challenge and get them to think," she says. Recently, she mixed paper clips into flour and asked the pupils how to separate them without using their hands. After deliberation they used a magnet. She then moved on to substances you can't separate - taking in a cake, which they ate. Later, the class moved on to chemical changes and compounds.

Another recent idea was to bring in a pig's heart from the market (with parents' permission) so the children could study its anatomy. "They loved that - it was so gory," she says.

Science in the school is closely linked with English and presentation. "I love our electronic microscope", she adds. The children recently printed close-ups from the microscope and displayed them around the school, asking fellow pupils to guess what was in the pictures.

Teaching tip: "Try to give them a challenge. For example, I might have five different solutions and ask them how they could find out what substance I had already dissolved in each."

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