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Science Is Opening Doors For Pupils At Gillespie Primary School

When you’re training the boffins of the future, it pays to start early, but students at Gillespie are learning far more than a trade

  • Science Is Opening Doors For Pupils At Gillespie Primary School

If there’s a profession more prone to being stereotyped than ‘teacher’ it must surely be ‘scientist’. Crazy Einstein hair? Thick-rimmed spectacles? Toaster full of psychomagnotheric slime? You’ve found yourself a scientist.

If you’re not absolutely certain, they’ll probably be wearing a long white coat, and be a bit dull at dinner parties – unless they’re evil (listen for the unmistakeable laugh) or one of those freelance scientists Metz employed to hawk their alcopops back in the late 90s.

Inaccurate? Certainly. But there’s nothing wrong with poking fun at a profession – the world would be unquestionably poorer without Ghostbusters II, for a start. However, if an unintended consequence is that the scientists of tomorrow are being put off, caution is called for.

The often negative depiction of science as geeky and uncool in popular culture is a particular problem because, research carried out by Kings College says, if children have been turned off science by age nine or 10, they’re unlikely to be turned back on later – and that, ultimately, has consequences for the country as a whole.

So what’s to be done? High-profile happenings such as astronaut Tim Peake’s stay aboard the International Space Station help – and those who read TP’s article on Calverton Primary School will have read about some of the learning that originated from that particular event – but at Gillespie Primary School in Islington the solution is rather more comprehensive.

Here children have access to a space dedicated to serious scientific endeavour, dubbed Lab_13, and a scientist-in-residence, who has succeeded in unlocking an enthusiasm for the subject in children and staff alike.

Gillespie’s efforts are about more than nurturing the scientists of the future, though. For them Lab_13 is part of a wider policy of adding value to children’s education, broadening their horizons and instilling in them a belief that they can excel across the curriculum.

A successful experiment

Gillespie’s Lab_13 is the first provision of its kind in London, but it has its origins in a concept developed by Ignite, whose team were in turn inspired by the Room13 network of school art studios that has spread across the world.

The dedicated laboratory space and scientist-in-residence are central to the idea, as is the development of a management team of students to take responsibility for every aspect of the space. In short it’s a significant undertaking, and it has taken time to develop at Gillespie as a consequence.

Embracing science to such a degree wasn’t always part of the plan, headteacher Mark Owen tells us: “What I’d wanted to do was to create a dynamic learning space that classes and teachers would be able to use in a whole range of innovative ways,” he explains. “But when I shared the idea with the governors, one, who was a professor of chemistry at UCL, told me about the Lab_13 network in the Midlands. We attended a conference and visited a couple of them, and I was bowled over.”

Sold on Lab_13’s potential, the school’s main challenge was financial: “We did a lot of fundraising and were very successful in getting the capital we needed to build the lab,” Mark says, “but we then had the problem of raising the money to get a scientist to run it.”

Even without an expert in place to take the lead, Mark explains, Lab_13 had an impact: “We had a space where teachers were taking their children for science lessons, and the whole status of science and the interest in the subject had grown,” he says. “We were able to develop some good collaborations with local secondaries, whose science teachers came to our school to teach lessons – including famously one year dissecting hearts. It took science to a place it’s not usually taken in a primary school.”

It was when enough money became available to employ a scientist-in-residence, however, that Lab_13 really took off.

Expert input

Carole Kenrick, a physicist and secondary teacher, has been Gillespie’s ‘scientist-and-inventor-in-residence’ for around three years now, and her tenure has seen a transformation both in the way children see science and their ability to carry it out.

On the day of TP’s visit, the industry and enthusiasm we’re told about is self-evident as a group of six Year 4 pupils are tasked with creating a wall display using conductive paint and light bulbs – invited to ask the questions that interest them (once they’re holding the ‘question caterpillar’), they enquire about the speed of electricity, and set to researching what they need to know online and in books.

They learn that the largest batteries aren’t always the most powerful, and decide that their display will need a switch if they’re to avoid draining theirs in double-quick time. Throughout, the children are challenged to consider what they are doing, and are continually learning as a result.

This is just a snapshot of what Carole’s role entails: she spends time answering children’s questions and overseeing those on the Lab_13 management team, facilitating the concept’s child-led focus and ensuring interest remains high.

She helps to organise yearly ‘science spectaculars’, which to date have attracted such luminaries as theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili OBE, astronomer Marek Kukula and engineer Mark Miodownik. She also supports staff on a regular basis, helping to make science a key part of Gillespie’s curriculum.

“At least once a term I’ll collaborate with teachers on a whole-class session where we try to bring the curriculum alive, or extend or relate it to a topic, to really challenge the children,” Carole explains. “There are two we’re working on at the moment. One is an air pollution project – we did a session a few weeks ago with some UCL chemistry graduates. We asked the children to hypothesise on some maps where the highest and lowest levels of pollution in the local area would be, and the students then took the children’s suggestions and planted detectors accordingly. After the summer holidays they’re going to return with the data, so the children can see whether their hypotheses are correct.

“I asked the children what could we do with the data once we have it,” she adds. “Having just found out about the mayoral elections, they said we could write to Sadiq Kahn. It’s about getting them to understand, even at this early age, how science can be used to influence people. It’s motivating, particularly for girls who – according to research – are motivated by wanting to do a career that will contribute to society.

“We don’t necessarily want all children to become scientists,” Carole says of the thinking behind Lab_13, “but developing the scientists of the future is certainly one aspect of what we’re doing. We’re offering that high-level knowledge and understanding, because we go way beyond the curriculum in exploring children’s questions. One of the things research suggests is good, too, is integrating careers into learning, so I bring up scientists – living and dead – in passing. I also invite scientists in to meet the children. Jus, a physics graduate who is researching solar panels, came in to speak to the children, for example, and one thing I asked her to do was to highlight that she’s a normal person.

“Another aspect is that many of the children we work with are really vulnerable, and might feel lost in life, so we’re giving them a space where they are valued, where they’re taken seriously and their questions are seen as important – it raises their confidence. Finally, it’s about making sure every child can think for themselves. We encourage them to consider the evidence. I want them to go forward in life not always taking things at face value. I don’t want them to become cynical, but I want them to be confident that they can evaluate things and think for themselves.”

As well as the classroom support that Carole offers teachers, she is also on-hand to provide formal and informal CPD, helping to spread good science practice throughout the school.

“Teachers will pop in over lunchtime,” she says. “I’ve found that a lot of valuable CPD comes from conversations with colleagues, and teachers say it’s nice to know I’m here so they have someone to go to with questions. We’re also trying to run more INSET days, though; we’re looking at a programme to support teachers’ subject knowledge – a ‘light and sound’ session, for example – as well as supporting them with things like working scientifically, providing challenge and developing curiosity.”

Trial and error

Establishing Lab_13 has been a learning experience for Carole and the school. “There was a lot of trial and error at the start, because there’s no set process for doing this,” she admits. “The challenge to begin with was finding a way to fit in with the school timetable. It was about communication with teachers – being a physicist, I put together a process with a colour-coded spreadsheet!

“There was the misconception, too, that science at primary level should just be whizz-bang, wowzy experiments. It took a bit of time to develop that understanding that science actually requires a lot of patience and waiting around for results. It’s a lot of failing, and things not working. It’s about perseverance.”

Carole points to the success of the school’s manuka honey project to illustrate this second point: designed to establish whether the foodstuff actually had its advertised health benefits, the double-blind controlled trial pupils undertook made international news – but it wasn’t a thrill a minute.

“The children absolutely loved it,” she says, “but most of the time was spent on planning, admin and data analysis. They didn’t actually do any experimenting – they sent out the samples. It’s nothing like you would expect children to enjoy, but they loved that feeling of having discovered something new. And, of course, when you do something really hard, it means more.”

The cost of employing a scientist-in-residence continues to be an issue, too – indeed part of Carole’s role is to raise funds to pay her own wages. At present the school is trialling providing a STEAM hub, sharing practice with local schools free of charge, but the hope is that the considerable demand that exists for Gillespie’s scientific expertise could safeguard its financial future in time.

ADDED VALUE

During his time as head at Gillespie, Mark has endeavoured to harness the passion of his team to, as he describes it, “increase the capacity of the school to add extra value to children’s education.”

“Whether it’s music, science, the arts or PE – if staff are really passionate about it, you get much more from them,” he says. “That might seem quite basic, but it’s central to how we approach things here. In the beginning that meant improving the quality of teaching within the school, and also bringing in new teachers with the skills and vision I was looking for. But at the same time, early on I had the opportunity for the school to become part of a music project called Music First, which we’ve been involved with now for almost 10 years. In a sense it’s the same kind of vision that we have for science – music experts delivering a fantastic music curriculum to pupils, but also supporting the quality of the work that the teachers provide.”

For Mark, the “broad and vibrant curriculum” that this approach is fostering at Gillespie can only benefit the teaching of core numeracy and literacy skills, while also boosting equally vital intangibles such as self-esteem, confidence and positivity.

“If I could, I would try to get extra value in every single subject area,” he tells us. “It can be manageable if you have passionate teachers and a clear vision of how the curriculum can be enhanced by having experts from outside.”

MEET THE STAFF

Mark Owen, Headteacher
“What Carole has done is present our teachers with a whole host of opportunities to really develop their practice, as well as the resources that we have. I think subject specialism in primary schools can enhance teaching, but it’s certainly not about replacing the teachers – it’s rather deepening what they can do. Adding an extra dimension to it.”

Carole Kenrick, Scientist-in-residence
“I think the standard of primary science is very variable. I work with schools where there is absolutely fantastic practice and I also work with schools where they don’t do science in some year groups. The new curriculum has panicked some teachers to the point that they’re teaching maths and English when they should be teaching science. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen.”

Caroline Rankin, Music teacher
“We’ve tried to move towards more projects-based arts learning – I mainly collaborate with Ian, our drama specialist, but I’ve also collaborated with Carole to look at sound in science and creating musical instruments. We looked into vibration and sound production through different instruments – wind, percussion, sound waves on a speaker, instruments made out of vegetables. The music curriculum is so open to interpretation.”

Shelley Wragg, Science lead
“What a scientist-in-residence does is gives teachers the confidence to go beyond what they’d normally do. It’s definitely improved my confidence – I’ve done things I wouldn’t have done independently of Carole, including dissecting eyes last year as part of a unit on light. It was Carole’s suggestion, but because she’s part time I ended up doing it on my own.”

PUPIL VOICE

Arthur, Year 5
“We can write letters about what we want to learn – Carole picks out a question and asks us to investigate it. For example, I asked, ‘Can we make our own element?’ Apparently you can, but we’d need a particle smasher…”

Carla, Year 5
“If you get things wrong, you should just try again. There was an inventor – I think he invented the light bulb – and he kept getting it wrong. But he didn’t fail; he just said he found 1,000 ways it wouldn’t work.”

India, Year 5
“I was thinking of being a doctor. I’d like to make people better, but also know more about how the body works. You need to learn about all the different types of science to be the best you can be.”

Katy, Year 5
“People aren’t born more intelligent than other people. Some people become smarter because they learn faster; they become clever as they are learning. I think everyone has the potential to be a surgeon, if that’s what they want to do.”

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