A good turnout for the second week, although some pupils hadn’t shown up despite the stories about marshmallows and spaghetti. Apparently this is a regular issue for after-school activities in primary school. Several kids were enthusiastic about telling me the scientific things they’d been doing, including building more structures with kitchen ingredients. So I think we can count the first week as a definite success!
Balloon Car Racers seemed a good next activity; simple materials, a clear outcome and hopefully something to take home. As with the other activities, the materials from the Ri ExpeRimental project gave us pretty much everything we needed.
Materials
We had 12 kids but plenty of leftovers (most earmarked for future sessions). These cost £4 from the pound shop.
  • 250 straws
  • 50 balloons (x2)
  • 100 BBQ skewers
Plus tape, card and bottle lids from general classroom resources and the local scrap store. I’d suggest collecting milk carton lids in the staffroom for a few weeks if possible.
Session
I started by asking about things that go and what makes them move. With each example – which I also used as a chance to get some more names – I added another step to the car. The video was blocked (primary school with YouTube issues) so I couldn’t use the section linking reaction forces to swimming, which was a shame.
I asked the pupils to tell me which they thought was more important – how far the car went, or how fast it traveled. Predictably, there was a mixed response! With more time I would have finished by running a ‘race’ and giving two different rankings, one for speed and the other for distance.
I used a timer on the IWB, set to 20 minutes, for the building time. This was a little ambitious, it turned out! All students had built or nearly built a car by the end of the hour session, and perhaps half had raced them against each other.
car1
Reflection
Some pupils struggled with the fine motor skills needed to use the sellotape. I don’t think I emphasized enough the need for the axles to be parallel to each other, and perpendicular to the ‘exhaust’ straw – perhaps next time draw lines on the card for them? With more time I’d have them make two, a ‘first draft’ and an ‘improved’ model. This would have been an excellent way to introduce the make/test/improve cycle, perhaps using photos of their cars to illustrate the progress. But it would have taken longer – this could easily be done over a week of lunchtimes, perhaps taking a photo each time to show the development visually. I suspect spreading it out over more time would be difficult with such young students, although at KS3 it might make a good structured project.
car3
Pushing the skewers through the lids also proved difficult for many. Next time some preparation would have been useful – especially for some lids! I’d add an awl or corkscrew for the teacher, and blu-tack to press into. A balloon pump to make up for little lungs and reduce slobber might also have been useful!
For future sessions, I’ll think through a specific ‘skills list’ before we start. Ideally the class teacher would be able to suggest particular points likely to cause problems, but I can probably manage. I’d do this automatically for my usual age group – what can they do easily, what do I need to explicitly teach – but I made guesses based on my own kids, who have always enjoyed crafty activities from Lego to junk modelling, (They haven’t a clue about football skills however, just like me.)

I’ve dug out some old markbooks – electronic and paper – because I wanted to think about who it is that we’re teaching, and why. It occurred to me that having universities contributing to A-level specification discussions assumed that the courses were for their benefit. In the classroom, we as teachers adapt our examples and contexts to suit our students. We can’t adjust the syllabus itself, even if we know that the majority of our students will be progressing to a route very different to an undergraduate physics course.
I’m relying on slightly incomplete data and scribbled marginalia, plus my own memory. It’s for one ‘generation’, from year 7 to year 13, at a previous workplace (specialist science, outstanding according to Ofsted, included sixth form etc). I’d be really interested in contrasting data, if anyone has it to share – I have no idea how representative it is generally.
September 2005 – July 2012
2005 (Year 7): 240 students starting our in-house course based on the QCA topics – remember them? The students were externally assessed (following an internal annual exam) by SATs. Remember those? After they were phased out we continued with our own internally marked version. The score was used to separate students into double and triple classes for GCSE.
2008 (Year 10): 64 students started the triple course (AQA Biology, Chemistry and Physics). They were selected on the basis of good scores in their KS3 SATs for both Science and Maths, as we ‘borrowed’ some maths time for the extra science. The remaining 176 did ‘double’ (Core and Additional AQA). None could swap during the course.
At end of yr11, a large majority of those who continued to AS science courses came to our linked sixth form. A few extra students applied from other schools locally. The majority of those doing Physics had followed the triple route. (This was similar for the other sciences but not as clear.) Maths was recommended but not required,  and the entry requirement was a B no matter what GCSE route.
2010 (Year 12): 40 students started AS Physics (AQA), of which 33 were our students previously. By the end of the year, 11 had dropped the course for various reasons. Those who had studied Double science were not disproportionately represented in those failing or dropping, but those who had gained a B at GCSE were.
2011 (Year 13): Of the 29 students starting, 24 had been our students at GCSE. The cohort achieved grades from A-E, only five below C. Of these students, 14 went on to scientific degrees. Of these 14, 8 went to do physics or engineering. (6 of these had been our students from Year 7.)
science generation
Summary
Ignoring later entrants, this means of the 240 we started teaching in yr7, only six went on to physics and engineering courses: less than 3%. Even just looking at those entering sixth form as our starting point, only 20% went on to directly relevant courses.

For many students, this was exactly as planned. Some of the courses – chemistry, medicine, maths – would no doubt use the skills and knowledge gained. For other students, the more nebulous skills such as logical reasoning would be valuable in their future courses. And it’s much harder to track those who may not return to the academic content until after an apprenticeship or similar.

But as far as university physics admission tutors are concerned, those students are pretty much invisible. They’re irrelevant. What they know, or don’t know, never affects first year courses or the tutors who complain about this or that gap in their undergraduates’ knowledge.

The competing needs of ‘Science for Future Scientists’ and ‘Science for Citizens’ have long been identified, but not resolved. I’d argue that in many ways it is a situation which cannot be resolved. A few factors which we’d easily identified in our prep room cause clear difficulties:
  1. We ask our students to choose (or often, we choose for them) in year 9 or even earlier. At this point some are yet to gain confidence, while others will have already peaked, in ability or attitude. There will be a proportion of students who could go either way, but can’t be identified yet. As science teachers, we’d see this as uncertainty, not error. (Insert Schrodinger’s Cat joke here)
  2. The courses are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having different values. I’ve always said that I’d have a lot more confidence in the equal value of BTecs and similar if the same proportion of students in private and state schools did them. When an MP’s child, Tarquin or Poppy, do a college course in Leisure and Tourism instead of A-levels then maybe parity will have been achieved.
  3. Currently 16-18 courses feel very specialized. I would have loved to do more than four subjects, and it was seen back then that a broader curriculum was coming. And that, as my wife frequently reminds me, was years ago. Students feel they must identify as a scientist – or not – very young. I suspect for many it feels like a big commitment. (We looked at doing science vs identifying as a scientist in an early SciTeachJC).
  4. The very topics which might motivate students to carry on to further study are those which are less relevant for daily life. This means that it is easy for the open-ended, challenging ideas – the inspiring ones – to be saved for those students who will come to them again anyway. Those achieving at a lower level are taught topics which are less exciting – reinforcing their belief that physics is boring. A self-fulfilling prophecy!
I’m not expecting to solve anything. I don’t think I’ve even identified anything new. But when I went through the numbers, despite having taught over those years, I was surprised by just how small a proportion of our students are ‘pre-physicists’. Perhaps it would be interesting to think about the equivalent numbers at your institution?

Quick and easy practical, instant gratification, cheap materials (that you can eat at the end). Yes, the first in our series of science club activities was always going to be Spaghetti Towers.
Materials
  • spaghetti (1 pack per four kids)
  • marshmallows (1 pack per four kids, no eating until the end)
Play, Look, Ask (from the Ri site)
  • Make a tower from spaghetti and marshmallows.
  • ExpeRiment with the construction of your tower to find out which shapes are best for building with.
  • Learn why some shapes are more stable than others when you build a tower.

before

I had a vague idea of how things would go. Some of it was right; a lot of it wasn’t. The kids had a great time and, I think, learnt a little bit too. We started by talking about buildings, then I challenged them to make shapes with the marshmallows and pasta. Several of the kids – aged 5 or 6 – enjoyed this so much it was hard to get them to move on. The next step was to try making something to stand up. Before too long we were able to lead them to the idea that squares fell over. A couple of better examples showed that triangles worked well, and soon there were many weird and wonderful structures taking shape.

About twenty minutes from the end I asked them to pause and showed a few pictures on the IWB of buildings. The kids were very excited to point out the triangles on the Eiffel Tower and the Forth Bridge. They were not, however, able to translate these to very regular shapes in their own building. There was a lot of discussion about whether we should test the buildings by pushing from the side or above – an interesting approach would be to add a fan to simulate wind. Perhaps with older students! Most of them were happy to explain that the buildings needed a strong shape as well as a strong material, which I was pleased with.

after

Next time – because we’ll be repeating the cycle each half-term with another group of pupils – I’ll aim for a clearer structure from the beginning. It was harder to get them back on track than I expected. I’m used to being able to ‘steer’ consensus in secondary, but the kids listened, nodded, then carried on doing exactly what they were doing before I’d spoken.

Next time

  1. Picture of a building (if the IWB is working and the blinds are drawn).
  2. Start with flat shapes (set time limit)
  3. What will happen when we stand them up?
  4. Try it out, then ask what the best shape is and how we know (time limit).
  5. What shapes are strong? (triangles are good, squares and more sides can be deformed.)
  6. What makes a tower ‘the best’? (tall, withstands load, withstands force from side?)
  7. Allow time to build the ‘best’ tower

Things to track more carefully:

  • different views of ‘scientist’ and engineer’
  • words used eg strong, bendy

 

 


My son’s primary school was looking for more after-school activities. My wife was at the meeting where they discussed the possibilities. And I’m a science teacher with a bit of spare time as my current role is both part-time and out of the classroom.
You can see where this is going, can’t you?
The shortlist
I quite liked the idea of working with kids directly, but I was very aware that as a secondary teacher I needed help. Besides, reinventing the wheel lacked appeal. I had a look at various ‘bought-in’ structures, for example some of those presenting at the ASE Conference. But they were quite expensive. I checked out ideas through STEMnet, many of which were aimed more at KS3. In the end, I presented the science coordinator with two options I felt would provide interest without a huge workload.
The first, predictably, was via the British Science Association: specifically the CREST Star awards for ages 5-11. (I have fond memories of BAYS from my own school days.) There’s a library of activities and kids gain the award after completing a certain number of them. Depending on the age and ability you choose different themed sessions, all of which have support materials ready to use.
The other was slightly less formal. I was fascinated by the ExpeRimental project from the Royal Institution last year, and blogged about it. The idea of providing materials for parents to have scientific fun with offspring is a great one. The second series of videos looks as enjoyable as the first. And I happen to know one of the people behind it, my good friend and virtual colleague @alomshaha. So it seems a natural step to suggest it for a science club for ages 5-6.
The choice
We’re going with ExpeRimental; partly because it’s free, and partly because it means we can provide easy links for interested parents. But mostly because it looks great fun. I’ll be blogging each week about how it went, good and bad, and sharing a few photos of the results (but not the kids). Hopefully a longer piece about the experience will make it to the RI website once we’ve finished the first half-term cycle. I really feel that many of the activities would work well with older students, too. In fact, I’d argue that some of them would provide a challenge for sixth form students if you simply changed the questions you asked. And isn’t that a great recommendation for practicals built from kitchen cupboard and junk box materials?

Skills Lists

18Feb15

I’m going to keep this brief in the hope it actually gets (a) finished and (b) published. Because I’ve several drafts that I’ve just not found the time or motivation to finish off. In context; I have a small child, a shortage of caffeine and a grumpy temperament. This may be because not one new blogger built on my #aseconf session and contributed a post. Humph.

Recently, the skills vs knowledge debate has kicked off again. Not that it ever really went away! I think like many teachers, I actually stay away from both extremes. Of course kids need to know (ie recall with fluency) some facts. The question is where you draw the line. Do I expect my GCSE students to remember that Carbon has a proton number of 6? Of course I do. Do I expect them to memorize the entire periodic table, with or without the song? Of course I don’t. This could be applied to the reactivity series, the equations of motion, geological era or pretty much any other part of science. Knowing some is vital, knowing them all is unnecessary. But discussion online – perhaps especially on twitter – tends towards the argumentative.

So arguments about what should and shouldn’t be in the national curriculum, exam specifications or whatever are doomed to end unresolved. And, let’s face it – as teachers we don’t often get a say in it. We just have to make the best of what we get.

Instead, I was kicking some ideas around with colleagues and ended up with the bastard offspring of APP for younger kids and logbooks as suggested for AS, via ‘loyalty cards’ which I blogged after stealing the idea from @ange01. Hold on, it makes sense. Kind of.

Why not, I reasoned, put together lists for the students to use to record their various competencies? (I did something like this for teacher standards, although I’ve stopped keeping track of it. When I get around to it I’ll create a version for RSci and CSciTeach recording categories and wave it at @theASE via twitter.) This fits in well with the new approach to practical work at post-16, something else which has divided teachers and politicians alike. I made several deliberate decisions for the sample below, but I was very much thinking this would be better put together collaboratively, exam-board agnostic and perhaps led by expert/subject associations. (It would be interesting to have input from universities too, although I’ve a post brewing about university involvement in curriculum design too…)

click for .pdf

  1. These are solely hands-on skills for the school lab – no analysis, no maths. There is no content. (Although it might be interesting to produce a paired list, with knowledge on the left and skills on the right. Hmm. Notes for later.)
  2. I ignored exam specifications and instead flicked through the relevant pages on PracticalPhysics. I’ve probably missed something, suggestions welcome.
  3. Instead of a ticklist, my idea was for students to add a date each time they demonstrated that skill. I suspect teachers would have varying ideas of how many times are needed. The only thing everyone will agree on is that once is not enough.
  4. This is for students to use themselves for tracking, not teachers to use for assessment. I hope HoDs are paying attention to this point.

It would be easy to use this approach for GCSE and AS/A2, one checklist per topic area. (I’m sure many colleagues and departments already do.) But why not spend a little time putting together a good list, based on agreed best practice? I do similar things for content revision, but it’s the first time I’ve done it for specific hands-on skills. I’m going to have a play around with a ‘minds-on, thinking scientifically’ version too.

I’d happily run a project producing high quality versions, based on wider consultation, for all subject areas. It would need more of my time and the time of colleagues. That means money, so let me know if you know where I could submit a proposal for funding…


My #aseconf

15Jan15

To increase the chances of this actually getting posted – instead of sitting in limbo like the (ahem) five drafts I’ve not completed – this will be briefer than my usual approach. But I figure bullet points are better than nothing.

I made it to the end of this year’s ASE conference. I had a great time, predictably because of the lovely people there. (Not the weather, obviously. I mean, it was Reading.) As ever, choosing sessions was nearly impossible with so many options and the plans for changed anyway. But this is what I did.

Thursday

I met my good friend and fellow physicist @90_maz on the train on the way down. (She also blogs and you should check her out. And the blog.) Luggage dropped off, we headed for the exhibition to score some freebies. Post it notes seemed to be the popular one this year, although I’m quite pleased with my syringe pen. It doesn’t take much.

It’s probably a bit sad that on meeting Keith Gibbs I wanted to shake his hand and thank him for his help. His book was a gift on finishing my PGCE – from Marion, as it happens – and is well thumbed and annotated. His student-level website, SchoolPhysics, is one of the first I suggest to novice colleagues for their classes. I now have the revised and expanded edition of The Resourceful Physics Teacher, which I somehow bought without asking him to sign it. I’m proud of my self-restraint.

Finding the teachmeet was challenging. A plea to the conference organisers; can we please have a venue next year which is quieter, larger and not in the middle of the exhibition area? But it was filled with interesting ideas, plus my wittering, and I’m glad I joined in. I particularly liked the scannable answer sheets concept shared by Lucie, Quick Key, turning any device with a camera into a multiple choice OCR scanner. I talked about Checklists and Commentaries, including PRODME an approach to investigative thinking I’ve basically stolen from lots of people. Nothing revolutionary but I was pleased with how it went over.

The #alternativedinner – capably organized by @MrsDrSarah – was great. Rather than dinner jackets and long speeches there was much laughter, great food, interesting discussion and dueling with breadsticks. What more could you ask? It was a great example of how the informal accompaniments to a conference are as important as the official sessions and the signed-off CPD.
Friday
I had a little more time in the morning to check out the exhibition. Several things stood out when I had the chance to think about it.
  • No stall from the Institute of Physics, my day job. Several colleagues were presenting workshops but the omission was noticed by many. I suppose it’s nice we were missed, and I don’t think it was just for the stickers.
  • Lots of companies offering paid-for workshops in schools with kids, eg for KS1 and 2 science clubs. I’m sure many had good ideas but I suspect for most schools the budget just isn’t there.
  • It wasn’t just the IoP; several non-profit groups seemed noticeable by their absence. I didn’t see the Crest Awards, for example. Presumably in these times of tight budgets it was a hard sell?
I’m really glad I attended the session from the Perimeter Institute, a hands-on practical making measurements to calculate Planck’s Constant. I’ve used purpose-built apparatus before, similar to this from Phillip Harris, but the RI kit was much more direct – and significantly cheaper! We started the session by using a ‘black box’ starter, where we had to model the arrangement inside a piece of drainpipe to explain the movement of ropes. Building one of these is now on my jobs list.
I was worried that nobody would make it to my workshop, especially as I was a late addition to the programme. In the end about ten colleagues came, although I suspect the promise of @90_maz’s brownies had a lot to do with it. Interesting discussion and the participants seemed pleased – even inspired in one case! I’ve created a new blog site, aseconference2015.wordpress.com, with the hope that making it easy to get started will help those new  to blogging. My presentation is available on Google Drive and if you’d like to contribute a guest post – or for me to link to your own site – then email me or use the Google form.
After my session I attended two more in quick succession. Literacy in KS3 science could have done with more time, but then it is a big topic! An important reminder was that, just as with science methods, we need to ‘think out loud’ when demonstrating and modeling literacy skills. @Arakwai and I agreed that one big issue is the confusion when everyday words have a specific science meaning. I coined the acronym SAL – Science as an Additional Language – to summarize this.
This was followed by a look at the new KS3 science specification, led by Ed Walsh (aka @cornwallscied). It was interesting to analyze the differences between the old and new approaches to ‘thinking scientifically’. In particular, I wonder if the reduced emphasis on social implications of scientific ideas is a concern, as this is something which has in the past been shown to increase the interest and commitment of female students. A brief digression during the session was to discuss the issues students have with science being ‘only a theory’ – something that the RI addressed nicely with the video from @alomshaha and @jimalkhalili:
 So in summary: a great day and a half with, as ever, many things to think about over the next little while. Some of them may even end up being blogged – if I can clear the backlog. Happy January, everyone…

My son is a keen and able reader. Not quite ten, he read and enjoyed The Hobbit earlier this year. He likes both Harry Potter and Alex Rider. David Walliams‘ books are now ‘too young for him’ and he’s a big fan of variations on classic myths and fairy tales – The Sisters Grimm and Percy Jackson, for example. He was a ‘free reader’ most of last year and continues to make progress when tested in school, in both reading and writing.

He’s now back on the reading scheme – level 17 Oxford. According to the official website of the series, these books are at a lower level than the reading age as assessed by the school last year of 11 years, 9 months. They’re short, mainly dull, and despite the claim of his teacher that he needs to be reading a wider variety the school stock are almost all adapted classics. Jane Eyre and Silas Mariner for a ten year old boy? Really?

We’ve got a good range at home, and he’s reading these in between finishing off the official school books (which he manages in less than an hour, but can’t change more than a couple of times a week). It’s not stopping him from reading. But I hate that for the first time in ages, my son sees reading as a chore.

You can probably tell I’m a little annoyed about all this.

Reasons and Excuses

I’m pretty sure that there are two reasons his school are being so inflexible. Firstly it’s a new scheme, a new teacher and they’ve got a lot on at this time of year. Only two kids – the other a year older – are on this level in the school. The scheme and approach probably work fine with everyone else, and adapting it to one student is a big time commitment. I understand that. I really do.

The other is about assessment. We’d assumed that the only way he can be assessed (via the Suffolk reading scale, apparently) is by reading the books that match it. We’re now not sure that’s right. The school have chosen an assessment strategy which doesn’t cater for the highest ability. It will be interesting to see how they try to show progress, seeing as these are too easy for him.

I think they didn’t believe at first how quickly he was reading them. When he demonstrated that he had understood, retained and could explain the books verbally, they tried to slow him down. “Write a review.” “Discuss it with your parents so they can write in your record.” And, I kid you not – “Write a list of all the unstressed vowels.”

Maybe this week he’ll be told them while standing on his head. But that won’t address the problem – in fact, two problems – with this specific range.

Boredom and Spoilers

I should probably read a wider range of books myself. I’ll hold my hand up to sometimes limiting myself to SF and fantasy too much. But he does read a range, given the choice – and this selection doesn’t give him an option. Adapted classics, followed by… well, more adapted classics. He liked Frankenstein. Jekyll and Hyde scared him. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights bored him. Silas Mariner was an ordeal. This is not varied. If the school can’t afford to buy more (which, for such a small number of kids, I can understand) then why can’t he read his own as well? We’d happily accept a list of recommendations from the teacher. What about Harry Potter, Malorie Blackman, Young James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, Phillip Pullman, Michelle Paver (he liked this, thanks to @alomshaha for the suggestion)? If they have to be classics: Narnia, John Masefield, E. Nesbitt…

The other issue is that if he’s read – or been made to read – versions of great books like Frankenstein or the Three Musketeers now, what are the chances he’ll enjoy the full editions in a couple of years? Why spoil his future enjoyment this way? I doubt his GCSE English teacher will let him read Percy Jackson when the rest of the class are reading Jekyll and Hyde for the first time, just because he knows the ending. A crap film can spoil a good book (Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers, step forward) and I can’t see why this would be different. I’m sure the publishers have lots of reasons for getting ‘classics’ on to the list, but haven’t teachers pointed out that kids will grow up to have a lifetime of enjoying good books?

Ranting and Reflection

Having to assess all kids against one set of standards inevitably means that some find it too hard, some too easy. When I stopped thinking like a parent, and started thinking like a teacher, this made a lot more sense. I’m sure I’ve done this at some point and my reflections will be in a separate post, hopefully in a few days. For now I needed to rant, and hopefully you’re still reading to see I acknowledge that!

I’d really welcome any responses on this one – especially from any primary colleagues!




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