Education & Family

Peake practice - boosting primary science

Children wearing refracting glasses
Image caption Considering questions of the Universe, at Colegrave Primary School, in London

With British astronaut Major Tim Peake safely back on Earth, what better time for primary schools to enthuse pupils about science? But how should teachers ensure lessons genuinely boost children's ability to explore the world scientifically?

Last Friday afternoon, a class of 11-year-olds at Colegrave Primary School, in Stratford, east London, were being asked to consider questions of the Universe.

"Why is my jacket red?" asked Dr Berry Billingsley, an associate professor of education at Reading University.

"I think it's because they made it the colour red," one pupil suggested.

"Maybe your jacket is red because you like that colour," said another.

"Suppose I said the jacket bounces back red light and absorbs all other colours," said Dr Billingsley.

"If my answer is right, does that mean you are all wrong?

"Were you right or were you wrong when you said I chose red because I like red?

"Can several answers be right?"

'Opinions' and 'facts'

Children often struggle to understand why the same question can be answered in different ways, says Dr Billingsley, who runs the Learning About Science And Religion project at Reading and Canterbury Christ Church universities.

"They say in RE [religious education], everyone can have their own opinions... but, eventually, in science, the teacher will overrule and tell you the right answer," she says.

The point of this session was to get the children to understand how scientific advances come about - and how science is the best way to approach some issues.

So the key question at the start of the session was: "What is science?"

The children were clear.

"You can discover new things about the world, which you didn't know before," said Maryam.

"Science is about exploring space and making scientific discoveries," said Almame.

Dr Billingsley gave them her favourite definition of science and asked them to remember it.

"Science is about observing and talking about our observations," she said.

Image caption The diffraction glasses split light up into seven visible colours

Falling on the Moon

The discussion ranged across galaxies and through human history, tracking the development of scientific understanding.

She gave every child a pair of diffraction glasses, which break white light into its component spectrum of seven visible colours and illustrate Sir Isaac Newton's experiments with prisms in the late 17th Century.

The class heard that two great scientists, Newton and Robert Hooke, argued about why light produced these colours, swapping notes about experiments.

The point was that scientists came up with theories based on current knowledge and then tested the accuracy of these theories with more observations.

Image caption Which piece of paper will hit the ground first?

Next, she handed out sheets of paper to the children and asked them to screw one of them up and predict which would hit the floor first if they were dropped at the same time.

"How will the flat piece fall?" she asked.

The children moved their hands to suggest the zigzag motion of a light, flat object floating to the ground.

They then tested their predictions that the scrunched up ball wall would hit the ground first.

Tougher to answer was the next question.

"And what happens if you are on the Moon?"

To answer this the children had to juggle ideas about gravity and air.

"They are going to hit the ground together because there's no air on the Moon," Tymek eventually concluded.

Dr Billingsley explained it was the astronomer Galileo who, in 1589, predicted that all objects would fall at the same rate in the absence of atmosphere.

She then showed the 1971 Nasa video from the Moon where Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott dropped a hammer and a feather together to prove the 400-year-old prediction.

"Using science, we can make predictions about things we have not observed based on observations we have made previously," she said.

Slinky science

Gravitational waves, the great scientific breakthrough of the past year, presented another example of observation needing time to catch up with theory.

Predicted by Albert Einstein almost 100 years ago, gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space and time produced by violent events, for example the collision of black holes.

In February, after decades of searching, scientists said they had observed the warping of space-time generated by the collision of two black holes more than a billion light-years from Earth.

And, this month, the same international network revealed their machines had detected a second burst of gravitational waves from a smaller merger of black holes

To illustrate the concept, Dr Billingsley stretched a metal slinky across the classroom floor.

She held one end and 11-year-old Naadiya the other, sending pulses along the coils to imitate the motion of gravity waves through time and space.

"Sometimes, it takes a very long time to get the evidence we're looking for," said Dr Billingsey.

"This breakthrough came with a very special event in space and a very special detector."

For Almame, the most interesting thing was that scientists had been unable to prove Einstein's theory until technology had caught up.

"It can take changes of technology hundreds of years later to prove a prediction," she said.

Image caption Pulses along a slinky showed children how gravity waves move through space and time

Dr Billingsley says the point of the sessions is to change children's thinking, to get them to think across boxes and ultimately help them work out how to ask scientific questions.

"They start thinking science is all about proving facts, and some of them say that any question can be addressed scientifically," she says.

"Unless they learn how to ask and investigate a scientific question, it's difficult for the kids to think about where science fits in a bigger context."

And it can be even harder once they reach secondary school and the timetable is divided into separate subjects, she says.

But does this approach to science appeal to children?

For Daniel, it was "the glasses and how they work and the light making colours".

"I liked finding out about gravity waves and seeing the model. It was cool," said Naadiya.

"Who thinks science is more fun now than they did before the session?" asked Dr Billingsley.

The response, by an overwhelming show of hands, was that this type of science definitely passed muster.

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