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When the balloon went pop

The Primary Science Teaching Awards recognise creative, engaging teaching. Mike Follows asks the winners for the secrets of their success

Pauline Abrahams Brentfield primary school

London, a multi-ethnic, inner-city school with 450 pupils.

Pauline can still capture the imagination of children 20 years after she entered the profession. She was happy to read Dirty Bertie by David Roberts to her Year 6 class even though the book was written for infants - a brilliant strategy because English is not the mothertongue for more than a third of her class, and if children see their teacher reading an easy book, they too will feel more interested in it. By personifying the bugs, she also made her class want to learn about them.

Observed lesson: "My Year 6 lesson was about micro-organisms and how they might be useful. Inside some wrapping was a 'present' from Bertie - a jar with a worm inside. We established that the worm would suffocate and then decompose if the air holes were blocked. While the less able children went outside with a learning support teacher to collect items, the middle group prepared the seed trays to test which of them would rot. Meanwhile, the most able answered an email from aliens who wanted to know where all the leaves disappear to after they fall off the trees."

Winning formula: "The foremost thing is that the children are enjoying science and that it's relevant. My observed lesson ran over but the children wanted to finish before going to lunch."

Emma Kirk

Wallace Fields junior school, Epsom, Surrey, a community junior school with 270 children

Emma is in her sixth year of teaching. She has a BSc in biology but already co-ordinates art and displays as well as science. From January she will be adding curriculum co-ordinator to her portfolio. She has wanted to teach ever since she can remember.

Observed lesson: "I love to teach through scenarios. For example, I get the children to imagine that they've been washed up on a desert island where there is no fresh water. All they have is what they've brought to school: the cling film used to wrap their sandwiches, paper, the socks they are wearing and maybe a handkerchief. Which, I ask, is the best material for filtering out the sand from the water?"

Winning formula: "You need to enjoy what you do and I look for fun and interesting ways to explain things. I pick up on their interests. We now have a couple of goldfish called Wallace and Junior and, with the recent release of the film Finding Nemo, the children wanted to know how the fish breathe. Showing an interest in what pupils bring to school encourages them to continue learning about science outside lessons. We have also developed an environmental area and are applying for an eco-school award."

Caroline Palmer

St Clement's amp; St John's infant school, Bournemouth, a voluntary aided infant school with 250 children aged four to seven. Serves an area of recognised social deprivation.

Caroline came into teaching 15 years ago and has been an advanced skills teacher for the past two. She originally worked in trading standards but was so fascinated by the way her children developed that she switched to teaching. She has retained her enthusiasm for science ever since her BSc in botany.

Observed lesson: "I got my Year 1 class to investigate the various ways different materials can change shape. I started by inflating a balloon with a face drawn on it. It exploded. Making things stand out like this helps the children remember. I was told that the children were obviously enjoying the lesson."

Winning formula: "I think we underestimate children. They are so receptive and soak up vocabulary like a sponge so I don't shy away from introducing difficult words, like 'transparent'. Look at their fascination with the names of dinosaurs. It's a pity that some non-specialists lack confidence in their science teaching because having the right answer at your fingertips is less important than encouraging children to ask questions and explore their own ideas. I did the 'primary teachers learning science' module of the Certificate of Advanced Professional Study and I recommend it particularly for those without a science background."

Penny Smith

White Notley CE primary school, Witham, Essex, a Church of England village school with 100 pupils

Penny has been teaching since 1976. She is now an advanced skills teacher with a fifth of her time taken up with outreach work, supporting teachers in schools causing concern. She normally has her own Year 2 and Year 3 class, but teaches science to all classes up to Year 6.

Observed lesson: "I got my class to investigate the density of materials by observing the extent to which objects floated - near the surface, just under and so on. The higher-ability children also tried to find out if this was related to the object's mass and volume. Those who observed the lesson were delighted the children were allowed to find things out for themselves."

Winning formula: "Don't be afraid to take risks. If you give children the freedom to explore and find things out for themselves they will remember what they learn. I emphasise skills over content. I want to give them the wherewithal to become independent learners. I get them to expand their explanations so they develop their own understanding. This seems to work because, over the past decade, the proportion of pupils gaining level 5 in science has increased."

Philippa Minto

Greenlawn junior school, Pontypool, a community junior school with 325 pupils.

Philippa is in her sixth year of teaching. She quit her job as a research chemist and made an instant impact as a teacher. If she manages to win her school the eco-school award for a third time at the end of this academic year, the school gets to keep its coveted status forever. Encouraging children to think for themselves is a hallmark of her lessons.

Observed lesson: "My Year 6 class investigated the reflectivity of different materials. Light from a torch was reflected off them into a hole in the front of a box. The box contained a figure that would be illuminated by this reflected light. The pupils came up with some excellent ideas."

Winning formula: "Science has to be taught practically. Children learn best from each other and this is encouraged by group work. Co-ordinators must think about how science is taught throughout the school by ensuring good practice is shared. This year all our children achieved at least a level 4 in science."

The Primary Science Teaching Awards are sponsored by the AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust and The Times Educational Supplement in conjunction with the Association for Science Education Loretta Kelly of St Teresa's primary school, Belfast, wins the AstraZeneca Trustees Award for lifetime achievement. St Teresa's is a school for boys and girls, with 500 pupils. Loretta was previously head of St Catherine's primary school (1992-98), an inner-city school of 200 girls, on the Falls Road.

Loretta entered teaching in 1971 after graduating with an English degree.

Studying for a Certificate in Science Education at St Joseph's College in 1982 and 1983 was a turning point in her career. Appreciating that science is an excellent vehicle for making children think, she introduced science to the curriculum in St Teresa's, where her approach was described as "inspirational".

"She was working with children in the most disadvantaged area of Belfast during the troubles, and yet their faces were full of wonder and awe. She encouraged them to ask questions, even when she knew she wouldn't have the answers. She never stifled their curiosity."

She became principal of St Catherine's in 1992, before returning to St Teresa's in 1998. She obtained funding to establish a primary science classroom through the Department of Education's Good Practice Initiative.

She has also been appointed to a variety of working parties involved in the preparation of the KS1 and KS2 science curriculum in Northern Ireland, and has taught on the primary science education programme at Queens University and St Mary's College. Most recently, she was the driving force behind the highly successful AstraZeneca-supported Science Students in Primary Schools project.

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