Time to get practical and start tinkering in Science!

Get ready for British Science Week with Creativity Exchange

As British Science Week 2022 approaches Lynne Bianchi, Director of the University of Manchester’s Science & Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub, reflects on the close links between science and creativity and the need for playfulness in the classroom.

The University of Manchester is a hothouse of creativity and innovation where science and engineering is bursting out of its seams! It is 20 years since Professor Andre Geim and Professor Kostya Novoselov isolated graphene, the one atom thick, two-dimensional crystal that is revolutionising material science today. The scientists frequently held Friday night experiments to get practical with ideas that weren’t necessarily linked to their day jobs. On one special Friday, the two scientists removed some flakes from a lump of bulk graphite with a piece of humble sticky tape. Their playful curiosity and perseverance led to them create flakes that were just one atom thick, a revolution that is impacting a wide range of disciplines including electronics, medicine and energy to name but a few. Getting practical, trying out new ideas, observing, collecting evidence and connecting ideas demonstrate the interplay between enquiry and creativity at their best.

Exciting times for science and creativity in schools

As we build up to British Science Week in March, National Space Day in May and the celebratory Great Science Share for Schools in June, it’s time to get practical and creative again after a Covid-enforced lull in practical science. All this comes at a time where a renewed national focus on teaching for creativity and how to develop young people’s creativity at and beyond school is underway, as demonstrated by Creativity Collaboratives, Arts Council England’s new fund for schools to explore teaching for creativity. Creativity and science have always been interconnected, not only for the major innovations and discoveries that underpin our living world, but in the smaller ‘wow’ moments that each of us have as we wonder and ask questions about everyday phenomena.

Since the launch of the Science & Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub (SEERIH) at The University of Manchester in 2014 we’ve focused our attention on how we engage children in ‘being’ scientists and ‘being’ engineers. At the heart of these are the opportunities a child has to be curious, ask questions, develop autonomy, make decisions, experiment and connect ideas. Learning through practical work or working scientifically involves deepening understanding of science concepts, applying the practices of science and inspiring children to think creatively.

Tinkering across the curriculum

Scientists, like those who are thinking creatively, are endlessly exploring ideas. In the classroom we call this tinkering, a kind of playful experimentation. The term tinkering relates to taking apart and rebuilding, repairing or improving something. It’s also a mindset and very much an approach to pedagogy. Nichola Potts, headteacher of Christ the King RC Primary School in Salford reflects:

‘Tinkering made sense to us. It opened a door to our creativity. We have enjoyed the creative process of making.’

Bringing creativity into science

Here are some examples to show how SEERIH has enabled children to cultivate their curiosity, ask questions and make new connections, all key elements of creative thinking.

Enhancing curiosity and imagination

Great Science Share for Schools (GSSfS) is the largest primary science campaign to champion 5-14 year olds to ask a scientific question, investigate and share it with new audiences. More than 211,000 children registered in 2021, at the height of the pandemic, encouraging children to ask questions that they’re curious about. How does blood move through the heart? How can my teddy bear be slowed down when ziplining from a height? How many different groups of rocks can be classified from our gardens and parks? How long does it take an ice-hand to melt. On Tuesday 14th June 2022 or whenever they can, teachers are asked to give time for pupil-to-pupil sharing in class, to iInvite parents and other special guests to listen to the pupils sharing their questions, investigations and evidence, and to share the questions more widely on Twitter.

Asking questions

Recently, the OFSTED Research Review for Science has argued that:

By learning about the products of science, such as atoms and cells, pupils are able to explain the material world and develop a sense of excitement and curiosity about natural phenomena.

Seemingly the simplest activity within the plan-do-review science enquiry process, the humble question, is the make or break of high-quality practical work in science. Having a clear purpose and engaging in ‘What if…’ thinking, as well as making connections to what is already known, allow for children to think creatively as scientists. Our role as teachers is to consider how we can value the time for questions within the fast-paced curriculum. It’s a challenge that isn’t easy but is crucial for children to have a real chance to experience scientific wonder and discovery.

In their recent report Reimagining practical learning in secondary schools, the Royal Academy of Engineering gives an overview of three specific approaches to pedagogy designed to encourage practical learning in school:

  • Project-based - an approach designed to give students the opportunity to develop knowledge and skills through engaging in projects focusing on real world challenges
  • Inquiry-based - a form of active learning that starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios
  • Problem-based learning - a student-centred pedagogy in which students learn about a subject through the experience of solving an open-ended problem.

Making new connections

Making connections between Science and Technology, Engineering, Maths and the Arts is not a new idea. Our own work in the Greater Manchester Engineering Challenge and in the Tinkering for Learning programme demonstrates how, when teachers collaborate across disciplines they make new connections and ideas flourish. We must trust our teachers to purposefully select and apply creative teaching approaches which engage children in science that has meaning to them and their lives.

Moving practice forward requires inspiration, time and tenacity. Our 7 principles for Primary School Engineering, below, outline the key concepts behind excellence in science education.

An graphic image depicting the 7 Principles of Primary Education

The Durham Commission on Creativity and Education’s definitions of Creativity, Creative thinking and Teaching for creativity underpins the Science & Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub’s vision for science education which inspires children to experiment above all else!

Dr Lynne Bianchi, Director of the University of Manchester’s Science & Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub. Her work is supported by the Comino Foundation, BASF, Ogden Trust, Royal Academy of Engineering and various other STEM organisations.

Further reading

Bianchi, L., Whittaker, C. and A Poole, A. (2021). The 10 key issues with children’s learning in primary science in England. Manchester: The University of Manchester and The Ogden Trust.

Bianchi, L and Chippindall, J. (2018). Tinkering for Learning. London: Royal Academy of Engineering.

Murcia, K., Pepper, C., Joubert, M., Cross, E., & Wilson, S. (2020). A framework for identifying and developing children’s creative thinking while coding with digital technologies. Issues in Educational Research, 30(4), 1395–1417.

Understanding science conceptual framework.

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