How do you help children learn about and relate to scientists?
At this year’s ASE conference I had the great pleasure of taking part in the primary pop-up. If you’ve not been before, imagine a room through which you can hardly move for primary teachers, a room laid out with tables enticingly covered with primary science resources, experiments and ideas. It was a wonderful hour and an absolute whirlwind — I lost track of the number of new primary friends I made and happy conversations I had!
At my table I decided to share three ways in which I help children understand what scientists do — and also help them relate to science in a more personal way:
I laid them out in order of time commitment: investigating children’s own questions in lessons; learning about and relating to scientists; and carrying out real research. It was the middle one — a discrete lesson I planned and taught to help children gain a better understanding of what scientists do, and put themselves in the position of a scientist — that seemed to interest visitors to my table most. Since a number of people contacted me after the event requesting a copy of the resources, I hope it will be useful to describe the lesson and the rationale behind it. I’ve also included links to the key resources in case you would like to use them yourself.
There are three key things I would like children to learn about during this lesson.
1. Subject knowledge: know that there are physical differences between different types of microbes, and be able to recognise some of these key differences.
2. Knowledge about scientists as experts and as people: know that scientists specialise in a field, meaning they become an expert in something specific which they therefore know more about than most other people, and than scientists who specialise in other fields. Recognise that if you are a scientist, you do not know about all of science! Appreciate that scientists often have to work together in teams and must listen to each other’s evidence, and must themselves provide evidence to support their reasoning.
3. Knowledge about jobs in science: know that there are many different types of jobs within science, and that the day-to-day life of an individual scientist is also quite varied. Recognise that there are aspects of the work of a scientist that they themselves might find rewarding and enjoyable – and recognise that they already do some of these things themselves in their science lessons.
To set the scene, I congratulate pupils on being accepted into a prestigious microbial researcher training program. I explain that on each table they will be working in pairs, to train to become a specialist in one type of microbe: either viruses, bacteria or fungi. At this stage I highlight the absolute necessity of attention to detail in their training – at the end of today’s training they will be presented with blood samples from patients in a hospital, whose doctors need to find out what is making them ill. An incorrect diagnosis will lead to incorrect treatment, so it is crucial that they are confident in their final answer. I deliver this with a sense of drama, and with care not to make the children think there are real people’s lives on the line!
I begin with a brief introduction to microbes, involving plenty of questioning, images, quizzes, this interactive website to help gain a sense of scale, and opportunities for them to ask questions.
I then hand out their training packs: containing a fact sheet about their microbe along with an annotated diagram of its key physical features, and a case study featuring an interview with a specialist in their field along with some questions about that person and their research.
The children are asked to do three things with their training pack:
1. In their pairs, take it in turns to read a paragraph at a time of the fact sheet, with the child who is listening asking the reader a question at the end of each paragraph. This will probably need to be modelled to the class.
2. Using the fact sheet and also the annotated diagram, children make a physical 3-D model of their microbe using plasticine, small enough that it will fit inside a petri dish. They are advised that they can make more than one model – and that this may be useful if their microbe can come in different shapes. Their finished model should then be placed on a piece of plain paper, which can be annotated with key information about that microbe, along with labels to highlight key physical features.
3: When children have finished their model and notes, they read the case study and answer the questions about the scientist and their work.
Before reaching the grand conclusion, I would take a moment to ask children to share their answers to some of the questions in the case studies.
The lesson culminates with pupils being given photos of microbes, and asked to identify them. Each pair must discuss whether they think it is the microbe they specialise in, and provide evidence to support their reasoning to share with the table. In case of disagreement between the pairs, they must listen to the other children’s evidence to come to a final conclusion. I suggest that at this point it may be useful to point to their models and notes if it helps support their argument. Table by table they must deliver their conclusion, and if any tables disagree they must justify their conclusions to the class. I take the opportunity to highlight to pupils why it is so important for more than one scientific research team to carry out the same research – to verify each other’s results.
Here are some pictures of what children wrote during this lesson, which I hope will provide an insight into why I think this was such a valuable lesson for the children — and why I have since kept looking for opportunities for similar kinds of learning in different contexts.
Let me know if you have any ideas, questions or feedback!