Time to make science work in the classroom

Opinion: A teacher-led project has proved fruitful in integrating science into the curriculum

Fri, Jan 10, 2014, 00:01

It is of great concern that children are losing interest in science and maths by the age of eight.

This may be due to how science is taught at primary school level. Many primary school teachers did not experience science instruction as part of their teacher training. Revisiting teacher education and programmes of continued professional development is needed to support a sustained renewal in science education not just in Ireland, but across Europe.

Irish students performed above average in the recent OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) 2012 study which ranks 65 countries on the performance of 15-year-old students in the subject areas of maths, reading and science. An improvement in science achievement corresponds with the introduction of the primary school science curriculum in 1999. However, a crucial step to strengthening Ireland’s international performance is to encourage constructive dialogue regarding the future of Stem – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – education.

The work of the recently established Stem Education Review Group to review aspects of teaching and learning of Stem subjects, at both primary and post-primary level, is essential to ensure Ireland has a cohesive strategy to support teachers in delivering the objectives of the curriculum at both levels.

Natural curiosity
In Ireland, integrating Stem teaching within the primary school classroom can be a challenge. But working with teachers to develop a relevant and workable solution has proved to be a positive, dynamic experience. Children’s natural curiosity, creativity and critical questioning is nurtured though inquiry- based science education, where children build knowledge through their experience of a scientific investigation.

For the past 12 months, the RDS, St Patrick’s College Drumcondra (SPD) and the Centre for Advancement of Science and Mathematics Teaching and Learning – a Dublin City University and SPD collaboration – have been working with a group of primary school teachers to develop a professional development programme called Stem Teacher Education. Working directly with teachers is the best way to develop a programme that is innovative and relevant to the challenges in the classroom. It can build on the knowledge and experiences of the teaching community and contribute to the success of existing initiatives, such as the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy.

The Stem project is informed by international research and, most importantly, by the needs of primary school teachers. The collaborative nature of the project has ensured that teachers have ownership over the direction it takes and that the resulting programme has the capacity to make a measurable impact at primary school level.

Reflective learning
Participants in the project explore, engage with and reflect on various methodologies for teaching the primary science curriculum. With a core focus on students’ skills development, the project aims to develop primary school teachers’ pedagogical knowledge of, and confidence in, teaching science through inquiry. In particular, the programme is focused on developing a reflective professional learning community among teachers.

The project has highlighted how science is a creative process and how science subjects lend them to integration across the curriculum. Teachers participating in the programme have started to use scientific investigations as a vehicle to develop literacy and oral language skills in their students, while an increase in child-led classwork is encouraging children to collaborate and solve problems together. The emphasis on linking science and everyday life is important. For example, exploring the science of levers and forces through the see-saw and swings in the playground can bring science alive.

The Stem project is also underpinned by the RDS Primary Science Fair, a non-competitive forum which harnesses the energy of more than 3,000 primary school students and their teachers. The fair takes place alongside the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and together with the Stem project, reflects the focus of the RDS Science & Technology programme to “encourage the development of science and mathematical skills in primary school aged children by fostering education innovation”.

Not every child will go on to pursue a career in a Stem- related field, but the skills inherent in these subjects are of crucial importance to the ability of Ireland’s future generation to critically assess the world around them.

Ingrid Hook, a former head of the school of pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences, TCD, is the chairwoman of the RDS science and technology committee, part of the RDS Foundation Programme

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