Science: A win-win case

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The Independent Culture
I Don't know how usual it is to have sequels to columns, but there is one that so delighted and excited me that I cannot resist unfolding the latest instalment of what I hope will be not so much a saga as a moral illustrating the power of the media pen. The story so far: a few weeks ago I wrote of a possible way to improve the lot of secondary school science teachers. Beyond the obvious solution of simply paying these hard-pressed individuals an increased salary, it struck me that they could be helped by being given more professional support. It was only a little later when I was talking to sixth-formers that a science master approached me with a detailed question on the brain. It turned out that he had been a researcher until funds had dried up, so now, he wistfully shrugged, he "had to do this".

Although this case is not atypical, it is not necessarily the norm either. I'm sure that there are many science graduates who chose from the outset to teach in secondary schools, but may now feel cut off from their scientific roots. My hand-waving suggestion a few weeks ago was that it would be marvellous to develop a scheme where science teachers were twinned in a one-on-one basis with university scientists. Beyond the concept of how it helps to have someone to talk to, my vision was hazy: but it turned out to be the catalyst for Tony Sherbourne, Bill Harrison and Ken Mannion, all of Sheffield Hallam University, to make contact. Bill heads one of the most experienced science education departments in the country, based at Hallam. If anyone could, they would be able to make the scheme workable.

Accordingly, we met for a brain-storming session, and the vision started to shape up: the basic idea was to facilitate interaction between science in secondary schools and universities. The enterprise would be aimed at the grass roots, where individual reached out to individual. Within the scheme, each scientist and science teacher would be free to have as much or as little contact and interchange as suited them. In addition, parties of pupils could visit their adopted lab, while graduate students could spend time at the school getting to know the pupils, and talking to them on an informal basis about research science and scientists.

Another important point was that the scheme might as well be open to all schools. Obviously no hard-working, grant-tormented scientist would welcome troops of five-year-olds, but the interaction could be tailored.

Basically, the scheme, as we see it, can only be a win-win scenario. Teachers would feel reconnected with their roots, and the pupils would become less spooked by science. Researchers would be performing a service to the community. The scientists might also receive some valuable help at the bench from sixth-formers or teachers on a working vacation. Moreover, as the main part of the scheme would be realised on e-mail, it would encourage more IT in schools as well as supporting increased joint projects between state and independent sectors. Most relevant of all, since the main aim is to introduce people to each other and let them proceed from there, it would not cost much money. On the other hand, some funds would be needed. To this end, Bill, Ken and I intend to lobby key scientists and educationalists and start a nationwide campaign to persuade those who proclaim a mission for education three times over to dig into their pockets. Watch this space.