An engaging science experience

Written by: HTU | Published:

Headteacher Roy McClelland discusses his school’s involvement with the Rolls-Royce Science Prize and how he has used it to teach his pupils key technology and problem-solving skills

We have just finished a year-long project as one of the nine schools lucky enough to be a finalist in the Rolls-Royce Science Prize 2012.

I co-ordinate science in my school in Northern Ireland and though a geographer by trade I refuse to see science swamped by geography and history as part of our World Around Us Curriculum.

In Northern Ireland, we no longer have heavy industries which compete and so our future commerce will be funded by innovative scientists and computer-skilled graduates who need not worry about location for their expertise to be competitive.

I am keen therefore to develop science, the use of technology and those thinking skills that will allow us to adapt and problem-solve in an ever-changing world. The Rolls-Royce Science Prize offered me the chance to explore all these aspects in school.

To begin with, interested in challenging and quality professional development, I enrolled at the National STEM Centre in York on its “Enhancing science through the use of technology” course (funded by an ENTHUSE grant).

Our aim was to deliver science education in the classroom with a high emphasis on the use of ICT and new software beyond our current managed package.

Our plan was acknowledged and selected alongside those of eight other schools in the final. Rolls-Royce awarded us with an initial £6,000 to carry out the project. We purchased four iPads and some motorised Lego equipment. Staff set about planning the new activities and themes and the opportunities to allow open-ended technology challenges with our designs.

We contacted the Apple store in Belfast and got 20 pupils up for a morning to be skilled in iPad software, especially “iMovie”. With the promise that each pupil attending would use the “each one, teach one” principle when returning to school, we soon had a large percentage of our pupils up to speed in using this adaptable device.

Our project was based on looking at famous inventors or inventions which came from Belfast in the past and allowing the pupils to test and improve their own variations on the designs. We involved all pupils in school, created a publicity or media team who made podcasts, video clips and animations for our website (as we used lots of “apps” what else could we call it but

Looking at famous inventors in the past such as Harry Ferguson (tractors), James Martin (ejector chair), Thomas Andrews (Titanic designer), and the Vertical Take off Plane we quickly got the pupils inventing testing and reinventing their own versions of the innovations.

Using motorised Lego kits we built, tested, redesigned and retested our innovations. The kits allowed a quick turn around in design features. Tractors, for example, were designed for climbing steep slopes, crossing soft terrain (jelly trays) and slippery roads (one metre of frozen water in a plastic rain gutter).

Amid all this fun in the classroom the children encountered sound scientific concepts of wheel speed, wheel size, four-wheel drive construction, energy transfer, cogs, gearing and weight ratios.

Opportunities for group work were excellent and an emphasis on communicating the details of our project to different audiences remained a tightly integrated theme.

Through our website we linked with an Australian primary school as part of an international teacher exchange programme. We had pupils each side of the globe sharing pictures of their Titanic models. As part of the core science, pupils needed to measure accurately, record findings and suggest design improvements.

Our iPads proved adaptable inside and outside the classroom. “iMovie” and its template themes allowed quick and easy professional videos to be produced by the pupils.

Within the science activities the pupils loved using the apps to time record and video their work. In tandem with the iWeb software, to produce the website, their videos and animations were a great source of interest to other pupils and parents.

The choice of apps changes daily; there are many evolving out there for digital snaps, video manipulation, audio recording, time-lapse recording, results templates, notebooks, sketch pads and report writing. A full list is on our website, but “Sketchpad” proved great for our on-the-spot reports, “Comic Life” for our write ups and stories, and “Pages” for our numerical results.

“iStopMotion” for the iPad in a primary setting is great animation software with many applications. Pupils made a short animation of the Titanic story, which we published on the webpage before investigating floating and sinking experiments at different ability levels throughout the school.

I was particularly impressed by the engagement of pupils who previously needed much encouragement. Typical of this was a boy who came to school with a spring toggle from a coat and demonstrated its potential as an ejector chair for his Lego pilot. It gave me an opportunity to challenge him into building a shoebox size-working model which he currently perseveres with during wet lunch breaks.

Our investigations into propellers progressed rapidly into making a simple jet engine inside a plastic bottle. Moving from the story of an invention or inventor, to the reconstruction of the object in class, to its improvement and then a problem-solving challenge to show an application for the skill was a typical journey.

Differentiated learning became the norm as some groups made simple devices and others extended their learning by using cogs and wheels.

So what else is out there to help breathe life back into the science curriculum?

Contact your STEM link in the nearby grammar or high school to borrow their equipment, students or time to get things moving. We linked with the Engineering Department at Queens University Belfast and found ourselves invited to their vehicle design centre, marine testing tank and wind tunnel. Working with postgraduates, the pupils got to test how quickly their hands cooled in ice water using thermal imaging and suddenly Titanic became real.

Elsewhere, my son (aged 18) turns to YouTube occasionally for an explanation of a mathematical formulae or scientific explanation that he may not have grasped in class. It’s a good idea.

Check out, for example, Charlie’s Fun Science on YouTube if you want to hear how science should be explained to the young mind. Compare then how we deliver it in schools and you will see a real use for multimedia. We as classroom facilitators need to make such technology-rich opportunities available and ensure that they are challenging and useful.

We need to create access to an audience and give the pupils the responsibility for telling others their story through audio or video footage. Try as a new way to present ideas in class. You will be amazed at what pupils can do with their ideas on this moving backcloth presentation tool.

So what can any school learn from our experience? First, the Rolls-Royce Science Prize seeks to develop and support science teaching in our schools. It is well financed for those lucky schools who get selected to develop their project (see below for more details).

Furthermore, top-notch training is available at the National STEM Centre and its hubs around the UK. And look beyond the school gates too, as others are out there to help – your local secondary schools need only be asked.

Our project aimed to “educate, invent and inspire” and with the support of Rolls-Royce and others this has certainly been achieved.

Further information

• The Rolls-Royce Science Prize is an annual competition. The 2012 finalists have been selected and each team now has until mid-June 2012 to complete their project implementation, recording their progress using a video camera. At the end of the projects the finalists will be judged to find the overall winner and runner-up, who will receive a further £15,000 and £10,000 respectively to invest in science education in their school.

• Visit the Kells and Connor Primary School project website and view their YouTube video.

CAPTION: A pupil from Kells and Connor Primary tests one of their creations. The school's pupils created the Made in Belfast project and carried out a number of scientific trials as part of their Rolls-Royce Science Prize entry

• Roy McClelland is headteacher of Kells and Connor Primary School Northern Ireland, one of the current finalists in the Rolls-Royce Science Prize 2012.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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