Interview 21. – Dr Sarah Bearchell

cartoon me

A freelance children’s science writer and presenter. She does science shows as Sarah’s Adventures in Science, writes for Aquila Children’s Magazine, develops activities for the Curiosity Box (a subscription science kit service) and writes in her own name. She mostly works with primary aged children, children with special needs and their families and carers.

Twitter: @SarahBearchell


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

Wonder is when something catches your eye and imagination, and gets you thinking. I can get totally lost in it, especially when it involves water, like whirlpools in a stream. Awe is when something utterly impresses you and you can’t work it out. Curiosity is the innate need to investigate and discover “how does it work?” or “what happens if?”

 

What inspires you to be creative?

I’m most creative in response to a question posed. I like a challenge! Plus tea and cake.

 

What do you love about magic?

I’m not keen on magic because I need to solve it. I know there is a rational explanation and a really good magician hides the science of how it is done to a point where I get really frustrated! I love seeing magic explained but I fully understand when people don’t want it explained. If the method is revealed, I’m always in awe of the skill of the performer who had me baffled!

 

Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

Being open minded. It can be really hard!

 

There’s a comment on your website from a ‘reluctant pupil’ that says: “I love it when we don’t do work!“, can you expand on why this comment struck a chord with you?

That came at the end of a workshop when Year 6 had clomped into the school hall, thoroughly unimpressed that they had a science workshop. Most of them had decided that science was not for them, only about two of the thirty children were excited by doing experiments. I was horrified.

I explained how plants adapt to high wind conditions, then the children had to work in teams to build paper trees to withstand the hurricane of the headteacher’s desk fan. They all worked really well and gradually forgot how boring science was. We had a competition at the end and the winning team included a girl who had been REALLY disengaged at the start but had gradually got more and more involved. Their tree contained lots of the features I had described, and some of their own. When I congratulated them, the girl came back with “I love it when we don’t do work!”…even though she had listened, processed and turned the info round to build a successful tree.

Her comment made me realise I was doing the right job. That I could reach children who were switched off from science and help them to love it as much as I do – even if they don’t realise what I’ve done.


cloud


Tell me about your Cloud Factory. Where did the idea come from, what does it look like now and what impact has it had?

I thought dry ice would be a great way to convey ideas of states of matter – it has a real wow factor – the clouds grab the audience’s attention in a moment. I built some kit which would enable me to take it into schools, so pupils could touch the clouds and observe how they were made, but remain safe.

I tested it out at my children’s primary. It was an instant hit. It even silenced the kid who said “Yeah, I’ve seen that on YouTube” – he’d never touched it before though! It was such a successful session, it made me think of our local special needs school and how such a sensory experience would work there. The deputy head teacher there is also very patient and trusting of me, and she let me in to try it out. It was an instant hit there too!

Then I took it to two schools for the National Science Festival. Where I encountered a child on a day bed, who had very limited movement and a serious visual impairment. I felt I hadn’t made the best of the session for him – he didn’t get the same joy as the other pupils. I needed to fix that. So I added fruit squash to the clouds, thus adding smell and taste dimensions for visually impaired audience members. It was a great success for everyone. Now they could see, hear, touch smell and taste the clouds.

I won The Josh Award for my work, and that enabled me to have a “Cloud Machine” built by the fabulous Richard Ellam. It allows anyone to make a cloud by pulling a trap door which lets the dry ice fall into warm water. It sits nicely on the tray-table of a wheelchair too.

So now we start with a small cloud, ask how to make a bigger one and take that to every child (and the grown-ups!). Then we think about how gas takes up more space than solids and liquids by giving them a cloud shower from another piece of kit which I designed. Then we predict what will happen if we add in fruit squash – everyone expects it to change colour too. When it doesn’t, we can talk about prediction failures and finding out how things work. Then we finish with clouds in bubbles – because EVERYONE loves a bubble. To many children its totally magical, but all the time I’m using scientific language, explaining what is happening and provoking them to make their own observations.

By taking the cloud round to the audience, I’m able to answer questions and tailor content to individuals, so it works well in mixed ability and family audiences. I recently ran it for a group of adults and they were just as wonder-struck as the kids are. A headteacher described the sessions as “Awe and Wonder”…to which I added “and Science!”

 

You’ve worked a lot teaching science to children with Special Educational Needs. What are the challenges and opportunities? What is lacking in SEN science provision?

The main challenge is in making sure that every child can access what you are giving them. So it needs to work on different levels.

For some pupils, success might simply be in engaging with the activity, just touching it can be a challenge, or sitting on a chair for more than 30 seconds. It is key to grab their attention straight away – no long pre-ambles. Other pupils, in the same class, might push the activity to its limits and ask really incisive questions. You need to be able to explain what is happening in terms the child can understand. Your activity needs to work for all these pupils at the same time.

I find that SEN teachers are really open to experimentation. They are less bound by the National Curriculum and have the opportunity to focus on the needs of individual pupils. School staff who know me, know they can trust me to make things work for their pupils.

I’m told I’m a rarity in this field, offering such tailored activities. I think I am able to do it because my children went to an “integrated nursey” at the local SEN school. So I’ve known some of the children since they were 2 or 3 (they are now in their early teens). I know what they like and I make my activities work for them, then it scales nicely into other schools and my experience kicks in to make it work for everyone.

Teachers of SEN pupils have a different range of skills to those in mainstream teaching. The Royal Society survey discovered just 3% of teachers in mainstream primary had an initial degree in science, I think it is lower in SEN schools, but that’s my personal experience. There seems to be less science capital in SEN schools but I’d love to know the truth of that.

 

Your funky dresses have become a bit of a trademark for you, what’s the appeal?

It’s all about barriers. A labcoat is a barrier to lots of kids. It makes you “other” or even worse, a medical doctor who they might have had a bad experience with. When you go to a school for a science day, it is a special day, possibly their only science day all year. Its only right to celebrate that by looking smart. A suit is not very me and feels like another barrier because so few of this children I work with know someone who wears a suit.

Besides, I like a frock, especially if it has pockets. Children will often come up to me and say “I like your dress”, it makes me more approachable. Its conversation starter, if you like, we can go from frocks to science very easily!


What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.

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