Sometimes, a series of fortunate events in the course of a week make you smile. Together, they can bring into focus something you’ve been thinking about in your subconscious. Three things intersected this week to make me reflect on how important it is to ignite sparks in science, to illuminate people’s imaginations – and there are so many ways of doing that.
Last Monday I was lucky enough to be invited to the UK final of Famelab, a wonderful competition where young scientists stand up in front of an audience and tell them something about science, usually based on their research. They have to demonstrate: Clarity, Content and Charisma!
Well, after 10 fabulous performances I knew a lot more about giraffe nerve impulses, how our brains help us navigate, excitons and game theory. And I learned a whole load about the art of science communication and what engages an audience. There was much laughter, some musical entertainment, some witty compering from the incomparable Quentin Cooper and incisive questioning from the judges (Mary Ryan, Dallas Campbell and Ben Garrod). While the judges conferred we were treated to an excellent presentation from Katherine Harkup, author of A is for Arsenic, on how to poison someone with strychnine. The Famelab UK winner, Kyle Evans, is a musical maths teacher (whoop!). He shared with us his favourite book, Flatland, which deals with how life would be in one- and two-dimensional space – set to music to help us understand.
So, the importance of a hook, a way of interacting with an audience which informs, entertains and ignites sparks.
Then on Tuesday I was working with Mr T, a physics teacher in an Oxfordshire school whose pupil audience is somewhat more captive. Yet the importance of using a hook to engage students in a classroom setting is every bit as important as in a 3-minute stand-up science bite. I know this only too well from 22 years’ teaching teenagers and more recent experience coaching teachers and on camera. I went in to Mr T’s school to lead a workshop on science writing, and left having established an embryonic Young Scientists Journal hub! The students there were so talented and enthusiastic, and can’t wait to start working in partnership with students from neighbouring schools to run aspects of the journal.
But Mr T is not ‘just’ a physics teacher. He oils the wheels of science partnership by linking people and joining up ideas, from hosting visiting astronauts to setting up engineering work placements. He exploits happy coincidences for the good of his students and those in partner schools. He encourages older students to lead younger ones, developing those essential soft skills in the process.
The importance of developing people, bringing people together, igniting sparks.
And then Ed. Ed was a Year 11 student of mine nearly 20 years ago. I have no idea what he’s doing now, or why I was suddenly reminded of him this week. My colleagues at the time considered him trouble and he certainly could disrupt my physics classes. Ed would always be last into the lab, with the same old question: “Are we doing a practical today?”
As a fairly inexperienced teacher, I wasn’t that confident running class practicals or performing demonstrations. But Ed’s question made me reflect on my teaching practice and I had to admit that practicals are good for learning. And, being somewhat stubborn, I decided to stem the flow of questions by planning an experiment for every single lesson.
That wasn’t so unusual in the 90s. Nowadays, science classes can go for weeks without seeing any apparatus, not helped by big class sizes, inadequate kit and inexperienced teachers and technicians. Maybe the assessed practicals at A level and soon GCSE will change all that. Not the best reason, but if it encourages more tinkering and experimenting, then good.
The importance of allowing children to learn science through practical work, igniting a spark…
If you’ve read this far, thanks for indulging a bit of musing! Do share any hooks you’ve used or sparks you’ve ignited recently.