Rosie Coates, an RSC teacher scholar, talks about how a career in science communication led her into teaching
I first caught the bug for exciting young people about chemistry through outreach while studying for my PhD. I was lucky to be at University College London, which has an excellent public engagement unit. I found watching pupils experience dry ice for the first time allowed me to experience that wonder again through them. It’s a massive buzz – I was hooked.
After completing my course I decided I could make a bigger contribution by working in public engagement than through research. I was fortunate to get a job working with science made simple, a science communication social enterprise based in Cardiff. Moving from research to delivering shows was a steep learning curve but I had a great team to work with. We travelled to schools all around the country and beyond.
Science shows are great, they are high energy with lots of audience participation – excited faces, catapulting marshmallows, banana hammers and levitating beach-balls. What's not to love? Nothing makes you feel good like 200 Key Stage 1 and 2 pupils applauding and whooping as you smash an egg.
Taking a journey
I loved the buzz after a show, but increasingly there was a nagging voice in my head wondering what the students would take away. Science shows provide a brilliant opportunity to give pupils a positive experience of science and the big picture of what it can achieve, but I was beginning to feel this wasn’t enough.
I was leaving shows with individual pupils stuck in my mind. Why were they the only one not smiling? Where did that amazing question come from? I wanted to know more about their stories and how they developed.
Some of our shows were great, but some were tough, and predicting how any particular show would turn out was nearly impossible. Gradually it dawned on me, learning isn't an event – it's a process. Without knowing where pupils were coming from and where they were aiming for it was difficult to see at which point of their journey I was meeting them.
Teaching became increasingly appealing as an opportunity to lead students on this journey and to get deeper into some of the juicy subject knowledge I wasn't able to delve into in just one hour. Science shows can be memorable events that help nudge pupils towards a more positive attitude to science but I wanted to be able to see the results of all those little nudges in the development of pupils’ attitudes and understanding.
As I start my teaching career I am building relationships gradually with my students. I can start to see pupil learning not as discrete interventions but as episodes that build on prior knowledge, tease out misconceptions and reinforce fundamental principles over and over again.
I don’t get much applause anymore, and I do have to be the voice telling pupils that they need to put in more effort, but now I get to be there to see the results.
Rosie Coates is a Royal Society of Chemistry teacher scholar based in Gloucestershire, UK
Applications for 2016/17 RSC teacher training scholarships are now open
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