I was very sad to hear this week about the death of my old high school physics teacher, Mr Livingston. I had him for five of my six years at school, and for all four years of my formal physics courses. It made me consider how important school and how especially important teachers are in getting us where to end up as adults, and it’s clear to me that without Mr Livingston’s influence there’s a good chance that I’d be (whisper it) a chemist…He was not the easiest teacher to get along with, being rather strict, and made of my classmates would probably say he turned them away from physics rather than on to it, but the fact that he really knew what he was talking about, and was able to communicate that understanding made him, in my eyes at least, one of the good ones. He was one of those teachers who was easily distracted. If he was asked the right sort of questions (often nothing to do with science) he would digress, often for a whole lesson, and it meant we often were very behind were we were meant to be. His stories about random things in physics stay with me even now, and I pass them on to my students and school kids in outreach events. The fact that cat fur used to be a mainstay in electrostatics experiments; the idea that you could learn which way German bombers were flying by listing to their engine noise; how to draw near perfect circles on a blackboard without any instruments; and of course the days when school kids were encouraged by teachers to bring in their fathers’ airguns for school experiments. I have lots of fond memories of classroom demos, and being closeted in his cupboard for my final year CSYS lessons. He was a great teacher, and I owe him a lot. May he rest in peace.
The Nuffield Foundation runs a bursary scheme for (mainly) school pupils about to enter their final year of study. In Scotland this is for pupils who have just completed their Highers and going on into S6. The projects are typically 5-6 weeks long and take place in the school summer holidays. They are aimed at giving pupils experience of a STEM project in a real world setting and are either industrially based or within an academic research group. My group has hosted pupils for a number of years (although not this year) and I hope that we’ve helped to encourage most of them to continue on with science and engineering studies at University – our ‘alumni’ have gone on to study physics, medicine and engineering.
When I say that these are ‘real’ projects, I mean that they are supposed to provide the pupils with experience of doing something properly useful, and one of our pupils even got his name on a paper on the basis of some of the work he did on the optical manipulation of aerosols. Doing something significant is difficult in 5-6 weeks, especially in my lab, but the projects tend to be designed to allow some useful and productive output within the time allotted. I tend to get the pupils to build me something from scratch, so they have some idea of what they are doing, as opposed to sitting them down in front of a bit of kit and telling them to press a button and record the answer in their lab book – so even if the data sometimes is a little sparse, they do manage to ‘make’ something.
A thought occurred to me though – it’s great having keen young people in the lab, showing them how we do stuff, showing them the process, and the effort that goes into to getting something to work – but wouldn’t it also be useful to allow teachers to do the same thing? Now teachers obviously have a degree in their primary subject and will have done a major project as part of that, so they should all have some ‘skills’, but wouldn’t it be interesting for them to update their knowledge with modern stuff, not in the form of a CPD show and tell day, but with practical experience back in the lab? Wouldn’t it be great if rather than simply telling kids, ‘yeah, study biology and there are loads of great jobs waiting for you’, you could say, ‘well during my holiday I was using this idea to help design a new drug’?
There are, of course, issues. Teachers can’t give up such a big chunk of their time in the holidays as easily as school pupils can – they have other commitments in terms of family holidays, recharging batteries and starting to do prep for the new term. But maybe there could be a way to offer teachers short placements, say a couple of weeks, to gain some new practical experience, and to maybe get involved in short term research projects. In doing so they can also start to build up different networks that can help out with school projects, outreach activities and possibly work experience placements for pupils.
I am not a teacher however, and it may simply that there is no interest in something like this, although I would hope this is not the case. So do any teachers out there have any thoughts on this issue – does it have merit, or is it a non-starter? What would be the practical constraints?
Update 11/7/12 I asked the Nuffield Foundation about such a scheme and it seems they are considering it at present, so it may come to pass. Watch this space.