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We must all get into the crucible

Schemes in which teachers share ideas will help them fire the next generation's enthusiasm, says Susan Rodrigues, director of the new Institute for Science Education in Scotland

A key challenge facing science teachers who hope to shape the informed adult of 2020 is how to make science relevant, engaging and easy to understand.

Some years ago I heard a professor of medicine say that it would take a medical student five years to learn the information reported by the medical community in one year's worth of medical journals. For him, preparing the doctor of 2020 couldn't be solely about learning a set body of knowledge; it was also about becoming a problem solver, well versed in effective inquiry, and confident enough to engage in detailed dialogue with patients.

More recently I read that if we extrapolate the rate of evolution of science and technology that has taken place over the past decade, then 60 per cent of the skills needed for the 2020 workforce have yet to be determined.

So, how can science teachers today be expected to prepare scientifically literate citizens and a well-educated workforce for tomorrow, when they are told that the goal posts have yet to be decided?

Ten years ago I conducted some research into the role of context on students learning oxidation and reduction chemistry. The project involved 15-year-olds from six schools in New Zealand. The students were really interested in embalming bodies, breathalyser tests, perming and colouring hair, photography and some rather strange bacteria. Yet, the examples suggested in the curriculum were water, sewage and rusting.

It wasn't simply a case of what they were learning, but how they were learning it. Finding ways to convey the excitement and relevance of science is important.

More recently I have worked on the Partnership in Primary Science project which is funded by the Astrazeneca Science Teaching Trust. PIPS 1 ran for 10 months and PIPS 2 has just started.

PIPS 1 involved teachers from 10 primary schools and two secondaries, nine scientists, three education officers from local authorities, one teacher educator and three information and communications technology personnel.

This community met face to face once a month and in-between times maintained online contact. Over the months, they helped to develop materials and activities that the teachers wanted to use.

The teachers were probably in shock at the start of the project. This model of professional development, though not new, is not the norm. Many had come to the project expecting to be shown how to use ICT and told what to do with their classes. Instead they found they were expected to use the collective strengths of the community to support their own needs. They were given time, resources and access to people who could provide support to help them teach the areas they had already identified in their science plans for their classes.

Interestingly, the impact the project had on the pupils and the collective support of the community seemed to spur the teachers to take on this high risk challenge, using ICT and everyday toys to teach the science described in the 5-14 curriculum. Soon the "show and tell" time allocated for the monthly meetings had to be increased as more teachers brought along examples of pupils' work and personal practice to share.

PIPS 1 worked for several reasons. It was well resourced. The people involved were open to challenges and willing to take risks. They worked well as a team because they came to see each other as partners who brought expertise and limitations in different areas.

This type of partnership might be a good strategy to help us meet the demands of 2020 but it requires teacher ownership and informed partnership.

It also requires trust. Teachers must trust the relevance and quality of partnership provision and partners must trust teachers to identify what would best enhance their practice.

The recently formed Institute for Science Education in Scotland aims to draw on the notion of partnership between organisations and people interested in promoting scientific literacy for all. Its role is to work with those in science education to complement and enhance what they do best.

Members at a regional ISES meeting suggested that ISES could provide a one-stop shop where teachers could glean information to make informed choices about appropriate science professional development and where providers could find information about the needs and wants of the science education community.

We are not short of good ideas in science teacher education but we lack structure, coherence and access to information that will help us sift through the good, the poor and the indifferent.

The science community will be crucial in preparing citizens for 2020 but the teachers will be responsible for providing students with an inspirational journey toward various goalposts and for working in partnership with the science education community in order to adapt as the goalposts continue to move.

Susan Rodrigues was a speaker at this week's Science Education 2020 ISES, tel 0131 650 7314

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