A new way of working for science education

This blog post first appeared as a guest article on the fabulous Science On A Postcard blog on the 22nd May 2020. Scientist, Science Communicator and Creative, Dr Heidi Gardner, curates a fantastic space for breaking down those barriers in science. Do go and have a look at her website as there are fabulous science-themed products to buy too, including postcards!

It feels like a good time to look back on the journey that my working practices took at the start of lockdown. Here’s my piece….

“This post is written by Dr Jo Montgomery, a qualified teacher and research scientist who usually spends her days delivering fun and engaging hands-on science workshops in schools. Here, she explains how her working life has changed since the coronavirus outbreak started, and how she’s trying to make the best of a difficult situation.
Find out more about Dr Jo on her websiteTwitterFacebook and Instagram pages”.

Science On A Postcard

Hi, I’m Jo. I’m normally found delivering fun and engaging, hands-on science workshops in schools, after school clubs and teaching home education groups, as well as supporting teacher development in primary science. These activities are all housed under the umbrella of my business, Dr Jo Science Solutions. I’m a research scientist and qualified teacher and I’ve spent the last 20+ years in this portfolio career of teaching, training, outreach and public engagement.

I’m usually found juggling multiple projects, but the last two months have seen a major pivot in the way that I’m working. Since lockdown, it seems that my entire life (as is the case with many people) operates online. Between work, family quiz catch-ups, coffee or drinks with friends and virtual university open days with my teen, I’ve been experiencing unprecedented screen time!

During the pandemic I’ve been increasing my online presence and provision for Dr Jo Science activities. Firstly, I spent a few weeks publishing free content to help teachers navigate their new ways of working, to help them find resources and activities suitable for home learning, and to help families educate and entertain their children at home. I’ve also been posting daily science activities to do at home every day since the partial school closures, take a look here.

I run a science club with my local school, which I have now moved online via interactive Zoom sessions. I’ve changed the things that we do to incorporate everyday household equipment; we’ve investigated mixtures, solutions and separation by filtering muddy water using sieves and cloths; explored sound vibrations and pitch with glasses and bottles of water; dissected plants from the garden; delved into plastics and recycling using household waste; and made our own toothpaste.

A few times I’ve actually used my daily exercise allowance to cycle round and safely deliver bits of science kit like copper tape, batteries, LEDs, and UV torches to add some excitement to our experiments! My science clubbers are always excited to receive a special delivery just for them and to use real science kit at home. I’ve also extended this home learning provision to other families via an online science club; I record an interactive video each week and prepare a bumper activity pack of related investigations which appear in inboxes up and down the country.

I’ve also been getting to grips with filming technology and have been recording remote science lessons for STEM Learning UK. I don’t think I’ll be challenging Maddie Moate for her TV job anytime soon, and it’s quite odd delivering a lesson with no interaction, feedback or interruptions(!) from the children, but it has been great to have another platform for teaching while we are all apart. 

Of course, the situation beyond my makeshift office walls is a tricky one – in terms of health, emotional wellbeing, the economy and beyond, but there are certainly positives to come out of this situation, both for science communication and for the community connections we are seeing daily.  

The greater need for understanding science is helping to fuel more science communication, which is leading to:

  • More resources being produced.

Many of them are excellent and being pulled together by big players in science education but quantity doesn’t always equal quality so it’s good to know where to look. I wrote a blog post for Nexus Education that’s packed with ideas, and my website has a list of resources too. 

  • Increased opportunities for home-learning. 

My work has been maximizing these opportunities, by linking with children’s interests, not being constrained by the curriculum and involving parents and carers in their investigations

  • There’s more opportunity for increasing science capital. 

Science capital can be defined as the sum of all the science-related knowledge, attitudes, experiences and resources that an individual builds up through their life. It’s not just about what you learn at school, but is based on attitudes and experiences and conversations at home.

  • There are more CPD opportunities for teachers and science communicators and they are more easily accessible without time, transport and teaching cover constraints
  • STEM Ambassadors can get involved with more activities by engaging with online platforms such as “I’m a Scientist”, which means they can reach students outside their local area.

The online world is quite different to the real one, however. I miss the real life, human interactions that you get when introducing someone to a new scientific concept or subject, especially with children who never fail to astound, challenge, enthuse and entertain. Digital training and teaching can be hard when there’s limited feedback from visual, physical and verbal cues, and spending your life on Zoom is quite tiring. That said, I’m enjoying learning and working in new ways and looking forward to bringing all I’ve learned back to face-to-face interactions when I can.

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