Alchemy in the classroom

Brigid McConville meets a chemistry teacher who sparks enthusiasm
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how the little molecules reacted ...

Elaine Coop has never forgotten her first chemistry lesson some 30 years ago: "My teacher, Miss Vito, burned phosphorous in a test tube and said: 'Let's see who is truly observant here!' We all saw it move up, but I noticed that it moved down again - and she praised me. That sparked my enthusiasm, which is still tremendous - and now I try to pass it on."

Elaine does pass it on, with such success that pupils at Colyton Grammar School in Devon flock to her classes, scoring mostly As and Bs at A-level. And this year, to the school's delight, she has won the Salters' Prize for Chemistry Teachers.

Elaine receives pounds 5,000 and a further pounds 5,000 goes to the science department. The presentation takes place in London today.

So what alchemy does she perform to transform this traditionally leaden subject into gold? Elaine runs each class like television's Crystal Maze, an energetic chase for knowledge in which youngsters tumble over themselves to come up with answers. It doesn't matter if they get it wrong - so long as they give their all.

This week, after a snappy brainstorm for ideas backed up with blackboard, overhead projector and photocopies, she had Colyton's year 10s heating vivid-coloured salts to see what happened. In the festive whoosh of Bunsen burners, they got on with it, two by two: performing magic in test tubes, squeezing pipettes scrupulously into beakers, conferring with each other, taking notes.

And Mrs Coop paced between the benches, chivvying them along: "A valiant effort at the start, sir, but I need more ideas!" Forewarning of dramas: "If it turns red, you stop! And put it in the fume cabinet!" Insisting on a response: "Come on folks, wakey wakey, spit it out! Communicating her delight: "Don't labour over it, get stuck in! They are pretty reactions; they are fun!"

She was always encouraging, varying the pace, making them laugh, keeping them on their toes. And the youngsters responded in kind. "When I came here first I thought they were on something," observed a colleague. "But they're like this all the time. And she's so organised; she doesn't forget anything!"

How does she do it? Partly by starting work (preparation and marking) at 5.30am. After the teaching day, Science Club and meetings, she carries on at home until 10pm. Practical requirements are mapped out for lab technicians a week in advance. Elaine has the backing of a "fantastic" science department and a husband who cooks but, most of all, she just loves teaching.

"The classroom; that's where I am really happy, talking about my subject." She likes to vary teaching styles, using (for instance) debate and role play with "trade unionist" vs "Greenpeace activist" vs "industrial chemist". "It keeps their attention," she says. "In part you are an entertainer. And I do fire questions at them like blazes."

Her pupils say they aren't afraid to make mistakes, but does she get cross? "I can blow my top," she admits, "because I can't bear wasted potential." Anyone who seems to be struggling is given their own "Action Plan": "We negotiate with them, ask where they are slipping up. And they are honest. It's about making them achieve their best."

The Salters welcomes nominations for next year's prize to Salters' Hall, 4 Fore Street, London EC2Y 5DE.

Tom Wainwright, 15: "She uses everyday examples - like making toffee at home. She'll listen and see why you can't understand something."

Gemma Gillman, 14: "She shows us she really enjoys the subject and she treats us like adults."

Ella Barber, 12: "She makes us work hard but it's fun."

Josephine Rowland, 11: "She expects a lot, but she helps you if you get it wrong. She makes good jokes; once we had to be air molecules and bounce around the classroom."

Ian Loynd, 10: "Every lesson is different, so we don't get bored."

Kate Hollands, 17: "She makes chemistry the top priority so that you really go for it. She loves her subject so much she makes you want to do well."