The class from Jules Valles Nursery School behaved impeccably. Two to a chair, some perched on teachers' laps, they sat through speeches and presentations to receive the award for their book of pictures featuring projects on water, gerbil births and caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies.
The children from Saint-Germain-les-Arpajon, 19 miles south of Paris, were at the Academy of Sciences, beneath solemn portraits of scientists from past centuries in the great assembly hall of the Institut de France. They were there with more than 100 other pupils aged four to 14 from schools throughout the country. All were prize-winning classes in the annual competition organised by La Main a la Pate ("Hands On"), a collaborative programme that has revolutionised science education in French primary schools.
Winning projects included the life cycle of dung beetles, an investigation into dental hygiene, and the construction of a motorised vehicle that could move and carry a load. A special award went to Raphael Cipolin School in Guadeloupe for pupils' research on a fragile coral reef.
Instead of traditional teacher-led pedagogy, La Main a la Pate aims to arouse children's curiosity and make science fun through inquiry-based education. It was founded in 1996 by Nobel physics prize-winner Georges Charpak, who brought the idea to France from a project he had visited in Chicago. He and two fellow members of the Academy of Sciences, physicists Pierre Lena and Yves Quere, have built the initiative into a nationwide network covering secondaries, primaries and nurseries, involving teacher training institutes, and with a growing international dimension.
In the mid-1990s, a decline was evident in the numbers of young people choosing science for higher studies or a career. And science education in primaries was in a sorry state, with only 3 per cent of primary teachers teaching the national science curriculum.
"Science teaching at primary school asked too much of teachers," says Professor Lena. "It was difficult; they were afraid they wouldn't know the answers to the children's questions, and were afraid of working in groups."
The three academics developed La Main a la Pate around 10 guiding principles. Pupils observe, question, discuss, hypothesise, reason, experiment, study nature at first hand and record their findings. Teachers let them work autonomously, and organise activities so children learn progressively from experiences.
A website was created where teachers could consult scientists directly, and 350 pilot classes started. The founders opened 20 education centres to serve as "laboratories", catering for schools and working in partnership with the authority, university, engineering school, museum and teacher training institute.
In 2005, they started adapting the scheme for lower secondaries, where different challenges arose. "Whereas primary teachers didn't know about science, at secondary it's the opposite - teachers know the subject but have no experience of 'active' teaching," says Professor Lena. But results in secondaries so far are "tremendous", he says.