Clifton Scientific Trust

Text of a presentation to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, Palace of Westminster, 27 October 2003, published in "Science in Parliament", Spring 2004.

Science Education 1
The Importance of School-Scientist Partnerships

Dr Eric Albone
Director, Clifton Scientific Trust

The Challenge facing School Science

Science is an intensely human, intensely creative, enterprise. Science dominates our lives and presents society with tremendous opportunities and tremendous challenges. It is exciting and perplexing, disturbing and enlivening. What it is not, is dull.

Yet dull is how school science is seen by many young people. It is a damning indictment that the Commons Science and Technology Committee reported 2 in 2002 that
Many students lose any feelings of enthusiasm they once had for science. All too often they study science because they have to, but neither enjoy nor engage with the subject. And they develop a negative image of science which may last for life.

Similarly, Sir Gareth Roberts 3 , in his 2002 Report to HM Treasury highlighted the need to attract the brightest and most creative minds to become scientists and engineers and expressed concern that while the numbers of scientific/technical degrees had been rising, those in physics, mathematics, chemistry and engineering had fallen significantly, a trend which threatened the UK's competitiveness. The Report stressed the need
to improve the relevance of the science curriculum to students in order to capture the interest of students (especially girls) and to better enthuse and equip them to study science,

In a different context, the Lords Science and Technology Committee Report Science and Society 4 underlined the crisis of public trust in much scientific information and pointed to the need to develop a culture of dialogue between scientists and the public. It emphasised the importance of science teaching in schools to equip all students for citizenship, and referred to the value of developing partnerships between schools and working scientists.

Student Engagement

Engaging the enthusiasm of the student is pivotal. The culture of excessive central measurement and assessment in education, undertaken with laudable aims, has in practice not only undermined the professional autonomy of the teacher and inhibited school-based curriculum innovation, but has killed the love for learning in many young people. If students gain no real enthusiasm for what has been learnt, they have gained very little of lasting value however well they may perform in tests.

Two years ago, Colin Lever 5 , himself a science teacher, posed a telling question.

Why is it, when our international standing is improving (9th in the Third International Maths and Science Study,) that fewer students are studying science courses in Higher Education?

It is notable that a recent DfES publication for primary schools "Excellence and Enjoyment" 6 has met a very positive response among teachers.

Student enthusiasm and commitment derive very powerfully from students gaining a personal sense of the real life relevance of their school experience, and of their own participation in and ownership of their learning. Grass roots partnerships between schools and scientists have tremendous potential to bring this about.

Through such partnerships, students can set their classwork in context by encountering at first hand something of the challenge of science as a human activity, where answers are always provisional, where uncertainty abounds, where "there are no answers at the back of the book", and where teamwork and creativity are rewarded. How often is school science thought of as a "creative subject"?

Peak Experiences in Science?

In the context of music education, John Sloboda 7 has drawn attention to the great importance for student motivation of "peak experiences", deep and rewarding personal experiences which have emotional as well as intellectual content.

Are such quality, motivating, peak experiences possible in Science? Teachers know that they are. School-Scientist Partnerships can contribute greatly here by

  • challenging students to experience their school learning in open-ended, real-life contexts
  • encouraging students to think for themselves and to question
  • respecting and valuing the students' contributions.

A powerful example of this is provided by the student response to the Japan 2001 Science, Creativity and the Young Mind Workshop which we devised as part of the Japan 2001 Festival. Hosted in Bristol, post-16 students from schools across Britain and Japan lived and worked together for a week in small UK-Japanese teams with expert guidance on open-ended science-related explorations, experiencing at first hand science as more than a compendium of "right answers". Through science they also learnt from each other's way of thinking and of doing things. UK Students were selected on "widening participation" criteria and in both countries two thirds of the applications were from young women.

The science achievements in the week were remarkable. Thus, NASA, with whom the our Space Science Team were in daily video link exploring hypotheses concerning the origin of the Martian volcanoes could write

Special guests from NASA and the Center of Science and Industry all felt the excitement of the real life scientific investigation and were amazed at the students' initiative and hard work. The model demonstrates effective collaboration among diverse cultures... More importantly, it demonstrates that, given an exciting challenge and necessary resources, young people will far exceed everyone's expectations!

But even more telling was the student response. The following quotations are taken from our Evaluation Report.

  • when at school, I was learning the science without being able to apply it; now I know what real science is like; I love it!
  • I managed to do a written report and presentation on a subject I knew nothing about with people I did not know, and yet to enjoy myself at the same time. I feel so proud to have taken part. I will never forget it.
  • it has changed my attitude a lot. I thought the Japanese were lovely people and I have realised there is so much to learn about the world
  • at the beginning of the week, communication was a problem, but now it has been overcome and everything is exciting..
  • it has made me realise how much differences we all have, yet we all have so much in common and can enjoy our differences instead of having conflicts

We are now working with support from the Embassy of Japan and others to develop continuing UK-Japan School-Scientist Partnerships.

School-Scientist Partnerships

In July 2002, a questionnaire to all Bristol LEA maintained schools seeking teachers' views School-Scientist Partnerships showed that although very little was currently in progress, 92% of the 34 schools (from Nursery upwards) who responded felt such links would be of great or significant educational value schools, and 94% schools asked to discuss possibilities in their school. Partnerships were seen to be of particular value in motivating pupils and in encouraging them to question. The most valuable mode of partnership would be with scientists working/talking with students in a continuing relationship with the school.

A number of organisations are currently seeking to build bridges between schools and the world of science and technology. One example, the Science and Engineering Ambassadors Scheme which evolved from the earlier Neighbourhood Engineers Programme, is much to be welcomed in encouraging more scientists and engineers to work with schools; some 3700 SEAS are now registered nationally. In the future the new Science Learning Centres will be in a position to play an important role in further facilitating such partnerships.

The closest approach to our own work is that of the Teacher Scientist Network in Norfolk. Like us, they stress the importance of working with the teachers to evolve creative partnerships from within the school, rather than delivering schemes to schools.

In building continuing School-Scientist Partnerships, we recognise the diversity of schools and see each partnership as being a unique exploration in what is possible in a particular school situation. Our task is to help the teacher and the scientist to work together to develop their own creativity in ways which fit their circumstances, and to network outcomes so that other teachers and other scientists can share good practice. Training to prepare the teacher and the scientist is of crucial importance.

We are currently developing an innovative Creative Science CPD Course (DfES/Wellcome Trust) to equip Primary Teachers to work with scientists in creative partnership. We have also developed models for very effective Primary Science Days. The most recent example involved staff from the Bristol Royal Infirmary working with sixty Bristol inner-city primary pupils in their teachers in ways which impacted the on-going teaching and learning in their schools.

Moving Forward

We see a major and largely unexploited opportunity to make a real difference to pupil attitudes to science through the development of a network of grass-roots School-Scientist Partnerships. The following are three key areas in which Government could at little cost greatly raise the profile of such partnerships within schools.

  • Give real encouragement to academic scientists to become involved by giving genuine incentive. At present such activities do not count in the Research Assessment Exercise, and academics derive no benefit from becoming involved. Indeed often they are discouraged from taking part.
  • Give more encouragement for industrial scientists to become involved, perhaps by instituting an "Investors in Education" award, similar to the "Investors in People" award.
  • Give more encouragement to schools to become involved by raising the profile of such activities in OFSTED's inspection criteria, and by giving schools much greater encouragement to be pro-active in this area.


  1. "Science" is used throughout in a generic sense to include not only engineering, and medicine, but also contexts in which science relates to ethical, economic and other concerns.
  2. HoC Science and Technology Committee Science Education from 14 to 19 HC 508-1, July 2002
  3. Sir Gareth Roberts' Review to HM Treasury, SET for Success; The Supply of People with Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths Skills April 2002
  4. HoL Science and Technology Committee Science and Society HL 38, Feb 2000
  5. Colin Lever, "Science is Boring", School Science Review (Association for Science Education), letter, 83 (303) 17-20 (Dec 2001)
  6. Excellence and Enjoyment; A Strategy of Primary Schools, DfES/0377/2003
  7. John Sloboda, Musical Expertise. In Ericsson, K.A. & Smith, J. (eds). Toward a General Theory of Expertise. Cambridge University Press. (1991)