Just before I started to write this post, I was listening to the Andrew Marr Show on BBC Radio 4. The panel of expert guests had been invited to discuss science. Specifically, in a programme entitled From Darwin to Big Data, they were asked to consider whether scientists have failed to communicate their work to the wider public, including specifically to children. And along with that, they were also asked to consider how science is not just a set of logical and rational facts, but that it also links into ‘real’ life. One of the panellists was Richard Dawkins, and he said he’d like to see a more integrated approach to science education and education in general. He said that science should be seen as poetic, soulful and spiritual and as something that’s aesthetically pleasing. I agree with him.
By one of life’s weird coincidences I recently had the chance to work with the SAW Trust. This amazing charitable organisation shows children, not only the wonders and practicalities of science, but also its connection with the emotional and artistic parts of life. And it does this by bringing together teams of scientists, artists and writers.
Here’s how the SAW (Scientists, Artists &Writers) Trust describes itself on itself on its website
The science, art and writing initiative breaks down traditional barriers between the arts and sciences.
Through creative use of science in the classroom, SAW inspires artistic and scientific endeavour. Children realise that science and the arts are interconnected – and they discover new and exciting ways of looking at the world.
SAW projects are accessible to all ages and abilities. They stimulate exploration, enquiry and creativity.
And they are fun!
And so it was that one day in June, I found myself back at primary school. I was there as part of team along with a scientist and an artist.
I spent the day in the primary six class (eleven-year-olds) at Canal View Primary school in Edinburgh. I was there as a writer, but as a writing tutor rather than as a novelist, and I was there because of an opportunity provided by the SAW Trust and Edinburgh University.
Before the SAW day itself, I’d already attended a training day at the university, followed by a planning meeting with the artist, scientist and class teacher I’d be working with.
The SAW way is that each team chooses a scientific topic, concept or idea on which to base the day. The scientist starts the day off by introducing the chosen topic via a set of activities that all the children in the class take part in. The artist then picks up the topic and uses it to allow the children to create topic-related artwork and finally the writer completes the day by getting the children to respond in writing to what has been experienced and learned throughout the day.
The topic our team decided on was DNA.
First, having been introduced to the concept of DNA via a short, concise and accessible video clip, the children extracted DNA from strawberries. The children were completely engaged throughout and seemed impressed by the foamy, stringy goo that is strawberry DNA. I was equally (if not more) impressed.
Then it was the artist’s turn to lead the activities. The class worked in small groups and each group produced a model of a section of DNA. The sections were then joined together in the double-helix formation of DNA and the long string was hung up across the classroom ceiling.
And finally, it was my turn. After a brief and stimulating discussion with the children about what we’d done so far and some examples from me, the children worked in pairs to produce poems – some rhyming, some not – that expressed their reflections on what they’d learned and how they’d learned it.
At the end of the day, the children applauded and thanked all three of us visiting practitioners and told us they’d ‘had the best day ever’.
I certainly shared that sentiment – also having had an exhausting, but brilliant day.
So thank you SAW Trust and Edinburgh University, and thanks too to Graham the artist, and Daniel the scientist – but most of all – thanks to Mrs M and her wonderful P6 class.
It was a wonderful opportunity and a great day.