BSPP News Spring 2002 - Online Edition

The Newsletter of the British Society for Plant Pathology
Number 41, Spring 2002 

The Adopted Essex Girl and the Norfolk Plant Pathologist - Tales from the Teacher-Scientist Network

It was almost 3 years ago that I decided that it would be a good idea to drive for over an hour to a primary school in north west Norfolk, stand-up in front of 30 children and try to enliven their science lessons (I WAS sober when I agreed to do this!). Little did I know then just how rewarding it would be for me, as a full-time scientist, to explore the world of science education.

But let's back-track to my early days as a member of the Norfolk-based Teacher-Scientist Network (TSN). TSN aims to bring together science teachers and scientists, in a partnership to promote science education. The exact form of these partnerships depends upon the two individuals involved but two basic ground rules must be upheld. Firstly the partnership must be school/curriculum led, addressing their needs, and secondly the scientist must not be just an extra pair of hands in the classroom.

So how do partnerships come about? I have always felt that my partnership was formed in a similar way to those on "Blind Date", with the TSN co-ordinator Frank Chennell (a former teacher) taking Cilla's role. Contestants independently answer three or four basis questions such as 'extent of commitment'; 'preferred age-group' and 'distance willing to travel' before Frank weaves his spell and picks two people, who, on paper are looking for the same things from the partnership. There is no point in pairing a primary school teacher seeking a scientist to come in three times in an academic year with a scientist who wants to work with GCSE students every week of the term!

However, the parallels stop there. To my knowledge Cilla has only overseen one or two successful pairings, whilst Frank and the TSN boast 70 active partnerships with numbers still growing 8 years after the network was formed.

I was paired with Mrs Maxine Woods, then science co-ordinator at Heacham Middle School, in January 1999. She had waited over two years to be paired with a scientist that was prepared to venture as far as north- west Norfolk. Frank attended our first meeting so that both of us would be clear about the ground-rules. The network has found such induction sessions are a vital ingredient to the success of the partnerships. He certainly cast a magical spell that day because we just hit it off immediately and have never looked back. So much so that with the continued support of TSN and input from the BBSRC schools liaison service, our partnership stayed together when Maxine got a new job at Prince Avenue Primary School in Essex.  It is here that most of our activities have been based.

Would you be able to work with this lot?..the 
partnership with future scientists

So just how relevant is a training in plant pathology to working within schools? For pre-16 students its impact is minimal, although there is an element on microorganisms from key-stage 2 upwards. However, this is no deterrent .. more often than not the partnerships draw upon your skills as a trained scientist as opposed your subject specialism. Certainly in primary schools there is a real mixture of both science specialists and non-specialists so any scientific knowledge you can impart is gratefully received, although in my case Maxine is a competent biologist in her own right. 

The TSN was formed in Norwich in 1994, based upon the Science and Health Education Partnerships that were proving so successful in America (see for more details). The activities of the Network are overseen by a Steering Committee, the majority of whom are teachers. The chairman is Professor Keith Roberts, and funding for the project comes from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. TSN has about 150 - 200 members with about 70 partnerships in operation.

So just what activities is the TSN concerned with? As I have already indicated, the principal activity is the partnering of teachers and scientists - more about that later. However, the network also provides access to additional resources and loan kits for teachers. These, as in the case of the torso model and skeleton, are quite expensive and not readily available in all schools. Some, such as the Forces & Motion kit, are produced in response to requests by teachers to provide resources to help with the delivery of some difficult-to-teach areas.

TSN also organises "Primary Workshops" to provide background knowledge in specific subject areas along with ideas for the classroom; the subjects covered in these workshops are dictated by requests from members. In addition, the "Masterclasses" are designed for secondary school teachers to learn about the latest research in a particular area with invited speakers, many of whom are leaders in their field, presenting their findings. Inevitably these go beyond the bounds of the curriculum but are great way to enhance an individual's own interest and knowledge.

For the dissemination of information to members of the network there is a twice-yearly newsletter, an annual meeting is held, and a web-site has been produced (see As partnerships are evolving all the time generating new ideas, members are encouraged to contribute to these sources to share project ideas and learn from others' successes and failures.

By working within the classroom, scientists help to breakdown the misconceptions about science and scientists and this is a vital element of the partnerships. Ask your average 8-year-old to draw a scientist and the stereotypical image sadly portrayed in films and cartoons comes to life again . I can promise you the picture will be of an ageing male, with either a "Tefal" hairline or "mad hair," wearing a white coat and  goggles, surrounded by explosions  - are you a stereotype!!?  We have found that if you do this same activity with children before and after they meet "their" scientist the images are dramatically different (although they will still highlight your worst features!). Your presence will also have a more beneficial role to teachers with the introduction of Citizenship into the KS3 curriculum from September this year. What an ideal way to show that scientists are part of their local community than by going into the school. You may also be able to help with discussions/debates about controversial issues that the teacher may wish to use in addressing this new subject area.

The archetypal stereotype as perceived by 
Eleanor Tresadern, Year 2 (before meeting Dr Smith!)

Maxine and I are fortunate that we are able to work with the same set of pupils for the whole day now that we are based at a primary school. We can focus on science days with the children which inevitably becomes much more than "just science". We began with a "Cells and DNA Discovery day" on my first visit to the primary school. We both thought this may have been a bit ambitious for Year 5 but they grasped some basic ideas via an interactive drama / slide show (based on the JIC/TSN Cell City production) and then built on these with a range of practical activities throughout the day.

Our "Environmental Science" day was good fun with the children rummaging through bags of rubbish realising just how much waste we generate and how much of it can be recycled. We have also found some very simple activities work well - we organised a day of Investigative Science with pupils planning simple experiments into the properties of materials to design "Santa's Sack" and learning to use binocular microscopes by reading shrunken text from Harry Potter. How many times have we all shown kids things under microscopes and not been sure what they are looking at? This is a great way to know they are using the microscope correctly.

However our biggest project was for National Science Week 2001 for which we were awarded a BBSRC NSW grant. We transformed the school (metaphorically speaking) into a home for the day. The children worked their way around the home looking at different aspects of science associated with each of six rooms: the kitchen, bathroom, dining room, study, workshop and garden. For example, the action of detergents in the kitchen - "scientific washing-up!"

Scientific washing-up in the kitchen with Year 6

With difficulties in recruitment of scientists and a very media-led society, what better way to promote science and encourage better public understanding of what we do and why we do it than becoming involved in such schemes. But you may be thinking that if you don't live in Norfolk than this is not relevant to you. Think again. Whilst the TSN in Norfolk was the first such organisation to formally partner teachers and scientists, we have also given guidance to all the other networks which now exist in the UK. These are listed at the end of the article together with a contact name or web address. If you are a PhD student have you heard about the Researchers in Residence scheme which gives you the opportunity to work for 24 hours within a secondary school on a specific project?

You may be interested in why scientists get involved in such schemes. The advantages to the schools and teachers are more obvious, but these were some of the answers listed by a recent survey of our members: its enjoyable and fun, found to be motivating, a great buzz working with kids, a change of scene, reality check, broadens ones horizons and a realisation of the importance of communication within science. There are now many schemes operating at a local and national level, so if you've not done so before, think about getting involved to promote science education and help spark the imagination of our future scientists. 

Phil Smith
When not in school, the author Dr Phil Smith is a member of the Cereal Rust Group, John Innes Centre, Norwich. We are grateful to Frank Chennell, TSN, Prince Avenue Primary School, Westcliff-on-Sea and the BBSRC for their continued support.