As the UK government steps up its effort to educate the next generation of scientists, Katharine Sanderson investigates a new national science learning centre and learns a few things about teaching along the way.

As the UK government steps up its effort to educate the next generation of scientists, Katharine Sanderson investigates a new national science learning centre and learns a few things about teaching along the way.

The UK is without doubt one of the best environments for scientific research and industry in the world. In particular, the UK’s pharmaceuticals industry is world-class. As the country stretches the boundaries of scientific discovery further, there may be a crisis in our midst that will bring this discovery grinding to a halt: the number of school children being inspired to study scientific subjects at university is dwindling. This has knock-on consequences of possibly catastrophic proportions for the scientific industries in the UK.

The government claims to be committed to education and in particular science education. This was first mooted in the Labour party election manifesto in 2001. A new network of science learning centres across the country may be proof positive that this commitment is being honoured. Recently, the White Rose consortium of York, Leeds, Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam universities won a bid to host the National Science Learning Centre (NSLC) in York. It will be the overriding focus for the regional centres and together with them will offer continuing professional development (CPD) for science teachers nationwide. The director of the centre is John Holman, Salter professor of chemical education at York university. It is clear that he sees the provision of high quality science teaching in the UK as key to the survival of the nation’s economic stronghold in science. When asked about the remit of the project he explains that ’the strategy is to take teachers who might have graduated 20 years ago and try to remind them why they were so enthusiastic about their subject in the first place. To rekindle some of that enthusiasm perhaps if it’s waned a little and to do this by first of all showing them the frontiers of the subject and where their subject is going, but also giving them new teaching techniques, new ideas for their teaching’.

The national centre will run intensive, residential courses that will take place over a number of days. This all sounds very ambitious, and in theory, all in the garden seems rosy. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to go and spend a week in a purpose built facility where the best possible techniques for teaching are being imparted by the best experts in the business? It may not be that simple. State schools have a tremendous pressure on them to provide a high quality education on a limited budget, and the biggest challenge to the success of the NSLC is that of getting teachers out of the classroom and onto the courses being offered to them. Holman, and the deputy director, Miranda Stephenson are acutely aware that this will be their main obstacle. Stephenson believes that the culture of the country will have to change in two ways, first so it becomes more the norm for schools to release teachers for CPD but also for the schools to pay for that. The new attitude that she hopes will emerge will be to see CPD as part of a teacher’s entitlement and to be so valuable that schools are willing to pay for it. As Holman quite rightly puts it, ’they [schools] have autonomy to use the money in whatever way they like and if they think it’s a higher priority to redecorate the toilets or employ a history teacher then they can’.

What will schools get back from sending their teachers away to the NSLC? As well as new teaching ideas and skills for their delivery, the centre is hoping to enthuse teachers about their subject. At York, the chemistry department is already involved in reuniting teachers with their subject. With the department’s help, Stephenson has been developing courses where teachers spend time in a research lab and this has proved very popular. ’The teachers are so stimulated by being put directly back in touch with their scientific discipline’, she says. This kind of course will be offered routinely and gives teachers the opportunity to explore contemporary issues like nanotechnology, supramolecules, embryology and genomics. These are subjects that have plenty of media coverage but going back to university in this way also exposes teachers to areas of research that don’t make it to the media that are actually fundamental to things like drug design. The Wellcome trust, as the major grant provider, is also, according to Holman, ’particularly interested in the notion of reconnecting teachers with their subject’. Stephenson is in agreement, adding that ’what we want to do is put teachers back in touch with academic scientists and maybe industrial scientists’.

Other organisations, such as the RSC, also offer CPD for teachers, and government training is being provided to science teachers already. Janet Latimer, head of science at Mexborough has been very impressed, for example, by the training that teachers have been given for key stage 3 (ages 11-14) recently. She is all in favour of her staff participating in high-quality training and says that ’the training we’ve had as part of the key stage 3 strategy has been the best training that I have known so I would be in agreement with people being taken out of the classroom if the training was going to be as good as that is. It has made a real difference.’ In her opinion, though, the implementation of these new found skills that teachers return with is the real problem. ’It’s what happens after the training that is time consuming and extremely expensive. It’s getting it embedded into practice and into schemes of work. It’s that next bit that’s the hard bit’, she says.

A shift in the perception of the importance of science from central government, evidenced by its backing of the learning centre network may yet prove infectious. Projects such as the SET incubator in Bolton, due to open its doors in the autumn to provide an environment to nurture a love for science, engineering and entrepreneurism, are another sign that perhaps the tide is about to turn and that the next generation of scientists that the UK produces could be the best in the world. Holman hopes that the opportunity he has been given pays off: ’we live in a premier scientific and technological nation, there’s no question of it. The only way we’ll go on being like that is if we go on producing specialist scientists. That means having enough students in school who want to go on to study science at university, and we all know that that’s a declining pool. So part of our responsibility in science teaching is to make sure that the pool is replenished and well stocked and filled with enthusiastic students. And the only way you get that is if their teachers are stimulating and enthusiastic’. He acknowledges that ’it’s a tremendous opportunity, it’s also a tremendous challenge’. The future starts here.

An incubator for innovation
In the heart of England’s north west a new project unlike any other in the country is under way. The Bolton Technical Innovation Centre (TIC), a limited company, is hoping to foster a new generation of science, engineering and technology (SET) enthusiasts, and encourage an entrepreneurial attitude among school children.

The TIC will act as a junior incubator and will be a method for identifying from an early age children with potential to become scientists, inventors, engineers or entrepreneurs. All primary schools in the Bolton region will be invited to bring their nine year old pupils to the TIC for a one-day experience in the first instance, with a second visit for all those children once they reach age 13. The staff at the TIC will be primed to spot any particularly able or interested children at this early stage and then the top 20 per cent will be encouraged to make subsequent visits to the centre, join in after school or holiday clubs and eventually these students might be able to work on a real project and get some valuable contacts with industry. It’s an interesting concept that an incubator such as this will perhaps reach children that might otherwise be overlooked in the normal classroom environment.

Brian Iddon, MP for Bolton South East and chairman of the board of the TIC is excited about the project. He describes the director and general manager, Paul Abbott, as having ’a missionary’s zeal to take people far outside the science syllabus and to encourage innovation’. Abbott was originally a teacher at Mount St Joseph’s business and enterprise college in Bolton, and the TIC is now built on the school site, with funding from the north west regional development agency (RDA). The building contains a fully equipped engineering hall, a large lecture theatre and a number of other offices and rooms. The upkeep of the facility is the next challenge. Industrial partnerships are being encouraged, and it is intended that the centre will be equipped with state-of-the-art machines gifted by industrial companies in return for the chance of that machine being showcased at the TIC.

Another great advantage to local companies is the chance for them to influence the next generation of young scientists and engineers. Abbott sees this as a major benefit and hopes that some forward thinking companies will grasp the opportunity to be involved in developing that new generation. It will mean that local SET companies have a ready-made recruiting pool of bright young things that they have watched develop throughout their lives. Iddon hopes that this relationship will be fruitful for both parties: ’we hope they’ll [SET companies] perhaps sponsor the students through university, and if they don’t do that they’ll follow them through university and perhaps there are job opportunities here for the brightest entrepreneurs’.

Abbott’s idea for the TIC grew after he attended a Celebration of Innovation event arranged by the Department of Trade and Industry in 2000. There, David Puttnam, chairman of NESTA, the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, called for ideas of how to produce the next generation of motivated teachers. ’Being obsessively enthusiastic, I wrote back and said "maybe there’s another way"’, says Abbott, and the seed for the TIC was planted.

The TIC is not about creaming off the best students and removing them from their schools. Abbott’s dream is to ’build a community that is interested in bringing on youngsters in SET. I think the idea of getting everyone working together in bringing on a new generation of scientists is fantastic’. Iddon adds that ’the idea of the TIC is to bring out the hidden quality of the pupils’. As long as the children actually want to attend the clubs, courses and other events at the centre, Abbott will be happy, ’the critical thing is that the children choose to be there’. He is aware that the right mix of staff will be essential, and that the TIC will need ’enthusiastic people who think anything’s possible, even if it isn’t possible’. He adds that, with this exciting opportunity to give the children of Bolton an experience outside they would not get in the classroom, ’who knows what will inspire them [the children] in the future’.