By Rhys Phillips

25 April 2014 - 09:30

'Children always love demonstrations involving the plasma sphere.' Photo (c) Hervé BRY, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Children always love demonstrations involving the plasma sphere.' Photo ©

Hervé BRY, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Children love technology, but what do they know about the science behind it? Rhys Phillips, who recently delivered a series of workshops in France for the British Council as part of the Science in Schools programme, is a research engineer and a radio broadcaster. He explains how teachers can amaze and inspire.

What is your view on the way science is taught in schools?

If children leave a science class feeling inspired and able to see the relevance of science to the real world, then the class has been taught well. Some teachers make a huge effort to inspire their pupils by coming up with inventive ways of teaching, and using real-life examples to show how science is part of everyday life — but others don’t. Children often don’t realise the range of available scientific careers and have narrow views about what being a ‘scientist’ means. In many cases, they only picture somebody working in a laboratory, wearing a white lab coat and glasses.

Yet the worlds of science and engineering are actually full of interesting and exciting jobs. Scientists and engineers around the world are discovering how the universe was formed. Many are working on treatments for deadly diseases, others are developing new technology and ensuring that our lives on this planet are as good as they can be. Very few people realise that my job — designing ways to protect aircraft against lightning strikes — even exists. If teachers can incorporate knowledge and awareness of these sorts of roles into their lessons, we are more likely to see a bigger uptake in science and engineering, thus helping to secure the future of the next generation. This is why the need for science workshops such as those provided by the ‘Science in Schools’ programme exists.

Do children love technology but hate science?

Most children and teenagers love technology — as do most adults, I think. It has become such an important part of our everyday lives that most people cannot imagine being without their mobile phone, for example. Some might argue that children are not interested in science, but I don’t think this is true at all. They might not enjoy science lessons at school, but that’s something very different. Besides, younger children often say that science is one of their favourite subjects in their early years of education. Something changes later on when teachers introduce more complex concepts. They move away from ‘fun’ experiments to teaching theory — something that seems less relevant to the real world.

What has most surprised you about the reaction of children to your workshops?

In my workshops, I explain the science behind my job in a one-hour interactive performance. After that, I talk about my other job as a radio presenter. The class then create their own radio news bulletins covering the science they’ve just been hearing about. I think the thing I’ve been most surprised about when running these workshops is the high level of English displayed by the children. In the workshops, they not only need to understand English but also use it in both the written and oral forms later on. Some classes have managed to include a lot of humour in their bulletins, which to me is a really good sign of understanding the language. I’m also impressed by how enthusiastically children embrace the tasks set for them.

What scientific facts are guaranteed to amaze children in one of your workshops?

The workshop contains several interesting facts: ‘every aircraft is struck by lightning on average once per year’ and ‘a lightning bolt has a temperature that is hotter than the surface of the sun’ are two of my favourites. The children always love the demonstrations involving the plasma sphere too. We use this twice – once to demonstrate why planes are struck by lightning in the first place and then again to demonstrate the potential interference from lightning on radio equipment on board the aircraft.

The next Science in Schools workshops, which look at contributions to science from the Muslim world, are in Poitiers on 12-16 May 2014.

Find Rhys on Twitter or visit his website.

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