Thursday 20 September 2018

It's elementary: primary pupils explore the science of life

An annual science fair for fourth to sixth classes has almost quadrupled in size, writes Katherine Donnelly

Daisy Keogh (11) of Catherine McAuley NS. Picture: Shane O'Neill
Daisy Keogh (11) of Catherine McAuley NS. Picture: Shane O'Neill
Molly Smith, Sheelagh O’Donovan and India Spillane from OurLady of Mercy NS Bantry, Co Cork, working on their Pendulums: Time Flies! project. PHOTO: EMMA JERVIS PHOTOGRAPHY
Pupils at Bullaun NS working on their project. PHOTO: ANDREW DOWNES, XPOSURE
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Does the weight of a hurley impact the length of the strike?

Sixth-class pupils in a Co Galway national school have worked out the answer to what must be one of the most pressing questions in the county that carried off the honours in last year's All-Ireland hurling final, after a 29-year famine.

Generously, the pupils of Scoil Éanna, Bullaun, Loughrea, will share their findings at the annual RDS Primary Science Fair (PSF).

About 3,000 children will exhibit at the first leg of the fair in Dublin's RDS, from tomorrow until Saturday, coinciding with the annual BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE), for second-level schools.

The PSF will also be hosted at two other venues, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick (Bullaun NS pupils will be among more than 3,000 participating there on January 18-20), and Belfast, in June.

The fair has grown hugely since its inaugural year, 2010, when 82 schools and 1,900 students exhibited at a single event at the RDS. This year, across the three fairs, 290 schools and 7,250 students are involved.

The PSF has been independently cited as a potential global benchmark for similar initiatives. International studies have shown links between primary school science engagement and later academic science achievement.

RDS chief executive Michael Duffy says that feedback from the PSF shows that participants' science and maths skills improve, as does their confidence, teamwork and social skills.

The fair proves the appetite for science among primary pupils, despite it being somewhat of a Cinderella subject in Irish primary education.

The time devoted to it is less than half the international average, and research shows that a large proportion of teachers are not comfortable with teaching it. A review of the time allocation for subjects in the primary curriculum currently underway the National Council or Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) may lead to changes however.

For this year's fair, curious pupils sought out answers to questions like 'Can we get balloons to lift us off the ground?' and 'Why do onions make us cry?'.

This is the fourth year that Bullaun NS has been involved, and teacher and STEM co-ordinator, Gemma Dolan says as this year's sixth class is particularly interested in hurling, they decided to explore how the weight of the stick might influence the game.

"There was a big discussion about how we could make this a fair test," she says.

So, rather than individual pupils bringing in their own hurleys, local supplier Eamon Hodgins made three 29-inch hurleys of different weights to create a level playing field, so to speak, for the investigation.

Like the other schools preparing for the PSF, at Our Lady Of Mercy NS, Bantry, Co Cork, fourth class pupils brainstormed before deciding to investigate pendulums for their project: 'Time flies! Or does it swing? Measuring time with pendulums' which will be showcased in Limerick.

"We came up with a couple of ideas that the pupils would like to explore and time was one of them. We got talking about grandfather clocks and eventually the discussion moved to pendulums," says teacher Barry O'Driscoll.

The school has participated in PSF for a couple of years and, he says, the pupils "love the process of working through the project and then showing what they have learned".

This year's group has been working on the project since last November.

Catherine McAuley NS in Dublin's Baggot Street, where all 97 pupils have dyslexia, is well-known for its particular interest in science education, going back to the pilot for the introduction of science in the primary curriculum.

Teacher Patti Roche says the pupils, drawn from all over Dublin city and county, "love the hands-on approach that science offers".

"It gives them an alternative to bookish learning," she adds.

For this year's PSF project, 'What's going on with light, shadow and colour?', which is being showcased in the RDS this week, sixth-class pupils built on work they had done earlier in the year in designing a shadow puppet theatre.

"We wanted to integrate into something we had done already. The curriculum is quite crowded, so you need to be able to bring a few subjects together," says Roche.

Irish Independent

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