Highs and Lows of Science Education

It’s been a week of up-and-downs- visiting schools where science departments are alive and kicking, and schools where science is second to sport and humanities. I’ve seen a lot and I’ve observed a lot. I’ve been in academies where the teacher has no control of the class (and responds by just trying to be their friends) and private schools that are really trying to share their privilege with their neighbours. I’ve met technicians who should be professors and professors who seriously need to up their game. The week has taken me from my secondary school (where without me noticing it science became my ‘calling’) to my primary school (where I became me- an obsessive perfectionist who finds it very difficult saying ‘no’) via Essex and Bristol and Manchester.

What’s shocked me?

Well, this for one- the adverts inside a secondary school toilet. The school only caters for students from year 7 to 9 (it’s new) and I reckon it’s been converted from a further education college, but I was amazed. The students have a distinct sense of unease about them too- they’re angry and I’m not sure even they know why. There’s a lot going on when you’re 12 – 14 years old, both at home and at school, and I’m pretty sure being directed to hot lines to report domestic abuse, gang crime and teenage pregnancy isn’t great motivation for a ‘happy life’.

At an ‘outreach level’, after visiting one of the UK’s biggest engineering centres, I was surprised to hear about how they decide which schools to interact with. There’s absolutely no recognition of the IOP, RAEng, IET or WISE research on what really works for outreach, and instead they’ve decided they’ve got it right- wow them. Because what kids really need is to be shown the excitement of ‘STEM’. UGHHHH, we’ve heard it all before. And, like Peter Main says, no one has ever chosen a subject at university because of a great outreach event. So they get schools in and dazzle them with their massive engines, they send out their ‘STEM ambassadors’, they feel warm and fuzzy and they tick all of their widening participation targets. Only… the schools they interact with are largely local private schools, who have the time and enthusiasm to work with industry, and there is no transparency in how they decide who makes their work experience programme. Universities (with their offer holder agreements) spend hours (if not weeks) deliberating over who should and shouldn’t make the cut. They only choose students who’d really benefit from the interaction- from schools with high numbers of free school meals and less affluent neighbourhoods. There’s no requirement for UK industry to do that, and so they don’t. They know there’s a problem with ‘Girls in STEM’, so first they let in all of the boys. The hardest demographic to reach, but far, are white working class boys. Convince them to go to university to study physics and you’ll likely get a medal. After they’ve accepted all the girls they move on to people’s children. Ah! The joys of nepotism. What a wonderful world it must be to attend a nearby private school and have parents working in industry.

            I’m also saddened by students themselves. I’m sure what we’ve got wrong with education isn’t solely schools’ fault, or the teachers themselves, or even the parents and the pupils- it’s a complicated blend of all of the above with governments at a national and international level, but the passion and enthusiasm of teenagers is fundamental for a lot of things. It’s important for parents to see what their kids are doing and also for teachers to stay excited about the profession. Apparently from year 9 level up kids just want to know whether material is “on the syllabus”. Private school parents (unfortunately, it’s mainly mothers) have the time to monitor their children’s education, and they don’t think teachers should waste time on non syllabus material. So students plod through GCSE and A-Level physics becoming brilliant at drawing arrows on moving blocks of metal and labelling the parts of a nuclear reactor, but if they’re asked about the wider context they freeze. From primary level up there are heaps of hilarious misconceptions of the general public to overcome (“I’m going to weigh myself” when describing a mass), and they’re easier to fix if everyone is switched on.

What’s made me happy:

            Well, almost all of the above. Some teachers are really sensational and should be paraded around the country like adverts of when education works. There’s Sutton Grammar School, a wonderful secondary just out of London who are (free of charge) hosting 1,000 students from local schools for a regional Big Bang Fair. For the most part I’m anti-Big Bang, but this I’m massively impressed by. They’re working with industry, universities and the kids themselves to deliver a whole day of workshops and exhibitions, with absolutely no one there “because they have to be”.

The physics department of St Paul’s Boys school are aware of how incredible they are: there’s probably more academic physicists at SPS than at most university science departments. Their tried and tested science teaching has produced generations of physics graduates, who I’m pretty sure all end up changing the world. They’re looking to create more academic partnerships with universities and industry, dissipating their extensive education insight to London schools and share resources. I visited SPS to discuss the most common mistakes in physics moving between primary (which they call ‘prep’) to secondary school, and we’re joined by a whole bunch of enthusiastic primary teachers. We talk at length about energy, forces and electricity. I found it super useful going through the IOP’s teaching resources for primary and seeing where the misconceptions might arise- “using up energy”, weighing yourself in kilograms, using equation triangles and confusing current for voltage. We discussed formula sheets and how we can get students to use them more efficiently, and SPS have come up with something ingenious- they get their students to create their own formula sheets. The really savvy ones don’t need to make them, most of the students get so much out of making them they don’t need them in the exam and the ones who photocopy someone else’s need a bit more support. We discuss how students answer questions themselves- how they face big questions and tackle difficult equations. All good teachers and a-level text books preach to keep equations as words until the last minute. At St Paul’s they say students have to FRSC (‘frisk’) it for a biscuit- they have to write the Formula, Rearrange, Substitute & Calculate.  In writing their own challenging exams, they’ve become very good at getting students to use scientific models as opposed to answering specific exam questions.

It’s not just the physics department of the secondary school that’s awesome- the chemistry technician of the junior branch is absolutely breath-taking. His science lab, or technician’s temple, is like finding hidden treasure. He’s made resin blocks encasing elements of the periodic table, from liquid mercury to solid copper, he’s got a light bulb on a drill that makes a plasma and he’s made ferro-fluid. I’ve been to heaps of cool places over my PhD and met thousands of incredibly intelligent scientists. I’ve been lucky enough to see inside research labs across the world and I’ve never met someone so creative and passionate. He’s not doing this to get his students grades in exams but because he’s amazed by the things that materials, chemistry and science can do. I guess the best way to show you is in the following:

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