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The ABC of ASE: the Association for Science Education Conference 2013

14 Jan, 2013
See the Big Picture at the Association for Science Education Annual Conference, 2013

See the Big Picture at the Association for Science Education Annual Conference, 2013

This January, the Association for Science Education held its annual conference for teachers, technicians and educationalists. I was there to take in the sights, sounds and snakes.

It’s a conference, but there can’t be many others like it. There’s a snake in a crate, a spaghetti-tower building challenge, and the chance to win a prize for speed pipetting.

A quick walk around the exhibition marquee reveals that The Association for Science Education (ASE) Annual Conference draws together individuals and organisations with many and varied interests in education. Companies showcase everything from magnetic stirrers to software for marking exam questions. Science centres, learned societies and other charitable organizations enthusiastically promote new educational resources.

Staff at the Wellcome Trust stand are handing out educational resources and talking about our work. The latest issue of the Trust’s free educational magazine, Big Picture: Inside the Brain, is flying off the rack, no doubt helped by its arresting cover image of a live brain. Wellcome Image post cards are proving popular and teachers seem pleased to hear about our digital image library, which contains over 200 000 images that are free for educational use. There’s been a steady stream of sign-ups for our new Education and Learning email newsletter and the conference is causing quite a stir on Twitter.

Conversations are as varied as the visitors themselves. One minute we’re demonstrating the new Big Picture app that explores social and ethical questions about the human brain, the next minute we’re talking about our new code of governance for helping school governing bodies to hold senior school leaders to account.

There’s also a huge range of conference events, from scientists talking about their research to seminars on the latest ideas in education research and policy.

The ‘Talking Science Education’ debate, organized by the Royal Society, Science Learning Centres and the Wellcome Trust, grapples with the roles that curricula should play in science education. This lively discussion includes questions around who should be responsible for setting curricula and whether it’s possible to create a single curriculum that’s suitable for all teachers and learners. From the disparate viewpoints aired, it’s clear that there aren’t easy answers.

As part of the Biology in the Real World talks, Tom Ellis of Imperial College London introduces us to the curious world of synthetic biology. His research, which involves the genetic redesigning of yeast, has led to more reliable ways of producing his favourite microbial product: beer. He also highlights the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), in which participating secondary schools use synthetic biology kits to build biological systems that can operate inside living cells such as bacteria.

In the Wellcome Trust’s ‘What’s Happening in Primary Science’ panel discussion, current science teaching practice in primary schools is under scrutiny. Primary science is one of the Wellcome Trust’s education focus areas and two Trust-funded researchers are presenting their findings.

Jane Turner, Deputy Director of the Science Learning Centre East of England, shares her findings on how science is being taught in primary schools. She’s analysed statements written by teachers participating in an award scheme known as the Primary Science Quality Mark. The statements offer insight into many aspects of primary science teaching, such as the different types of teaching and learning approaches being used and how assessment is conducted. A report on these findings is due to be published later this year.

Ian Abrahams from the University of York also talks about his research. He’s running a two-year randomised control trial to investigate the effectiveness of continuing professional development (CPD) for primary science teachers. His early findings raise an interesting question: is it more important for a primary science teacher to have specialist subject knowledge, or to have empathy for their students? He suggests that a teacher without specialist subject knowledge may develop more empathy when they have to learn the material that they need to teach. It may make them more aware of which concepts are difficult to understand and how a learner could approach them. The study runs until 2014 and should offer some interesting insights in this area.

The conference lasts four days and every one of them is packed. It’s an intense start to the New Year, but a great opportunity to speak directly to teachers and the wider education community about our work. The team is still buzzing on the journey home and the conversation has already turned to next year’s conference…

If you’d like to find out more about Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust, you can subscribe to our email newsletter and follow us on Twitter.

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