Friday 9 December 2016

Getting excited about science

The RDS STEM Learning initiative encourages creativity in class

Meadhbh McGrath

Published 28/01/2016 | 02:30

Jack Barsoum from St Peter’s Primary, Bray, Wicklow and the project 'Can we design, make, build and program a homemade robot?' Photo: Orla Murray/ Ark Photography
Jack Barsoum from St Peter’s Primary, Bray, Wicklow and the project 'Can we design, make, build and program a homemade robot?' Photo: Orla Murray/ Ark Photography

When compared with other countries, science is a Cinderella subject on the Irish primary curriculum. It is allocated an hour a week - 4pc of class time, well below the international average of 7pc.

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By comparison, 17pc of intime is allocated to Maths, compared with an international average of 15pc, while Irish primary pupils spend 10pc of their class time on religion, double the international average.

With 11 subjects, it is a busy curriculum - overloaded, teachers say - and its shape and balance is something that is currently being reviewed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) to see how best to manage and allocate time so as ensure optimum outcomes for children's learning

The outcome of that review may decide that more time should be given to science. Meanwhile, teachers and pupils are rising to the challenge of putting the subject centre stage, fostering essential skills, such as a spirit of inquiry, and laying foundations for future study in areas such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

One popular initiative is the RDS STEM Learning Programme, which aims to develop primary school teachers' science education skills and encourage them to embrace child-led learning by demonstrating innovative methods of teaching science in the classroom.

One of the pioneers of the move to foster innovation in STEM education is the Swedish science expert Hans Persson, who spoke to participants on the RDS Programme.

"What I do is inspire teachers with good examples from my own teaching," he says.

"Over the last 30 years, I've been trying to give teachers who are not very skilled in the science subjects ideas that they feel really enthusiastic about and that are inspirational both for them and for their pupils."

Professor Persson believes it is important to begin STEM teaching as young as possible, and to include the full spectrum of STEM subjects.

The lessons he demonstrated for teachers included putting salt and food colouring on an ice cube, or placing a glass of water on an overhead projector in a darkened classroom to produce a rainbow on the walls.

"I try to turn things from everyday life into interesting objects that can be used in investigations to spark students' imagination, like buckets or plastic bottles.

"When you had your first chemistry lessons at school, you entered a laboratory, and that was the context I was trying to get away from."

Martina Sexton from St Peter's Primary School, Bray, Co Wicklow, took part in the STEM Learning programme two years ago, and is currently enrolled in the facilitator course.

"It's very easy to fall back into 'chalk-and-talk' and prescribed activities. If you're taking on a science lesson, it's about making sure that the skills are transferrable from lesson to lesson.

"We do a lot of child-led investigations, so that the children come up with the question, which is brilliant because they actually have a much greater understanding of the science that they need to have, like fair test or measuring," she says.

One of the investigations Martina conducted with her fifth class group was on finding the 'best' kitchen paper for the school. They looked at a number of options to find which was cheapest, softest or most absorbent.

Martina realised her methods were working when one of her students asked during a geography lesson what was the worst earthquake ever, and another pointed out that they needed to investigate what 'worst' meant - was it the strongest, or the most damaging?

She believes these inquiry skills can and should be developed as early as possible.

"I had second class last year and it was different - our investigations wouldn't have been as specific with measurements, but they were still designing the test and identifying the results from the investigation.

"It's not dumbing it down, it's just making it more simple for their level of understanding. But the skills that they're using are exactly the same as the fifth class students, we just build them up over time."

She says the programme has also had a big impact on her own confidence in teaching STEM: "I don't have a science background, I didn't do it in college or for the Leaving Cert. With this programme, you just feel so much more confident letting the children direct the learning."

As well as the STEM Learning Programme, the RDS holds an annual Primary Science Fair for students (alongside the annual BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition), and this year, they introduced a second fair in Mary Immaculate College, Co Limerick.

Between the two fairs, over 4,500 fourth, fifth and sixth class students from all over the country presented 180 research projects.

Each investigation was based on questions posed by the students, such as how to prevent tears when chopping an onion, or the effect of different soil types on plant growth.

"Though a non-competitive event, judges were very impressed with the methodology, research and scientific skills that schools displayed," says RDS spokesman Diarmuid Hanifin.

Following the success of the expansion, he says the RDS hopes to return to Limerick in 2017, and will look to expand even further in 2018.

'The projects come from a place of their interest'

For their research project, Ciara Brennan and her sixth class group from St Peter's Primary School, Co Wicklow, built a robot called OhBot, which they programmed to make basic expressions and movements.

"The project always comes from a place of their interest. I have a lot of students who are into (IT coding club) CoderDojo, so we decided that's where we were going to go this year," says Ciara.

She is particularly interested in technology, and also lectures part-time in ICT at the Marino Institute of Education.

At St Peter's, her students are very involved with the class Twitter account, and last year, they won an Eircom Junior Spiders award for their class blog.

Although funding is limited in this area, they try to do activities where the whole class can be involved, such as recording podcasts and creating stop-motion videos using Lego.

Irish Independent

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