Revolutionising Science Classrooms

20/03/2012 18:52 | Updated 19 May 2012

As anyone who has spent any time with a 10-year-old will know, primary school is the one period of life when everyone is a scientist: every child asks a million difficult questions, and tries things over and over trying to figure out how stuff works. It is also probably the most important time in our learning. After all, it is during that time that we learn to read and write, to count, to subtract, and to multiply. It is the very time when the most important intellectual life skills are laid down with children, when great horizons are opened, and learning is at its most exciting and life-changing.

If in nursery children get to spend time every day in messy play, as they move up through primary school, however, more and more time is spent in formal learning, today a necessity, given the importance of exam results and league tables. What is missing from many primary schools is a lab, a workshop, an adventure space where children can try to find things out for themselves.

Inspired by the Lab_13 idea of Rick Hall of IgniteFutures!, we are also building a making space at Gillespie Primary School in Islington in central London, to join a set of six other Lab_13s in the Midlands. Lab_13 is a place where children will be able to build things - rockets, periscopes, comets or playdough electrical circuits; where children will be able to make a meringue or a loaf of bread, and then look at them using a microscope; where children might step into a "classroom obscura", explore pinhole cameras, and then perhaps think about how to draw in perspective.

To say that most of these ideas are not original is to miss the point. The intention with each activity is to get children to think and to explore the world with the tools of science: construction, observation, and measurement. But this is not just about science. What we aim to do is to link science seamlessly with other subjects, and erode the prejudice that separates the sciences from the arts and humanities. Some Lab_13s have played with geometry and built anamorphic pictures in the playground, linking maths with art class. Others have taken vegetables grown in their school garden, used hand tools to shape them into instruments and played them with their music teacher - cooking them afterwards is a bonus.

Crucial to this project is the involvement of undergraduate and postgraduate volunteers from my own institution, UCL. For the past three years I have been sending some of our students into the classroom to lead sessions with children with funding from the UCL, the Salters Institute and the Royal Society. These grants keep us in the Petri dishes, rubber bands and marbles that we use in these very hands-on sessions. The students, who bring with them their boundless energy and enthusiasm, are powerful role models for children who might otherwise never see a scientist close up except perhaps on television. For the university students, as much as for the children, it is an extraordinary opportunity to broaden their own horizons. It exposes science students to the joys of talking and working with primary school children, and ultimately I am convinced that it will lead some of them to choose primary school teaching as a career, something our schools so badly need.

But in addition to an adventure space great teachers also need to take their charges out, and go to local events such as the London School Science Conference or a Science Festival. For example, at the annual London Schools Science Conference, groups of students have the chance to meet scientists in person and play with and think about innovative medical technology. For example medical device maker Medtronic is sponsoring a "battle of the bands"-style workshop where healthcare professionals go head to head to convince students that their medical device is the most innovative in healthcare today. Implantable pumps against prosthetic limbs. MRI scans against blood glucose sensors. Such a battle takes school level science out of the classroom to face the challenges of the real world, and shows how technology is the embodiment of creativity and lateral thinking.

It is by connecting the science with their myriad questions and with real world devices that children become engaged and inspired. By doing more messy play and involving university students we can expand the range of ideas that our children are exposed to. We can deepen their learning, foment creativity, and most importantly of all, open and nurture their minds.