Television, whether it’s live or recorded is a hard to beat resource for teaching science. Where else can you watch the big bang, see plants take up nutrients or wince as someone handles a human brain. TV brings school science closer to real life and often saves you getting too close.
‘Short Circuit’ a BBC series for age 15-16 starts a new series in November. Not only is it about real life science, but as a result of BBC Education listening to teachers it’s promising to be about teachers’ real needs too. It’s part of a first wave of re-thought TV offerings which includes with a new ‘Science in Action’ series next term.
The first ‘Short Circuit’ is about homeostasis, one of the many abstract ideas that teachers have identified as tricky and needing help with. It tells the science behind the story of Leah Betts, the teenager who died after taking Ecstasy.
We see her last hours reconstructed, see her parents and tablet-sharing friend talk about what happened. We hear scientists saying that Ecstasy confuses the hypothalamus in the brain, leaving the body temperature to soar while kids dance energetically. But then we hear that Leah was not dancing, she did not overheat, she actually took an overdose of water because her body control system was telling her the wrong things. This is not just a too powerful and sad story, it’s an excellent way to hold the science together and get to see a real life hypothalamus, watch sweat forming and see what is in a kidney.
The curriculum links here are evident and relevant. But what has usually happened in educational TV is that the producers have called the shots - choosing the ‘sexier’ topics that made ‘good TV’. Topics like genetics where the potential for practical work is almost zero were either avoided or dealt with in a more dry, and up-front way.
Teachers have also said that programmes were never called what they were - so that say "Second Birthday", was used as a title for something about heart transplants, and helped no one in choosing material for their courses. From now on a BBC spade will be a curriculum spade as this series of Short Circuit features titles such as Photosynthesis, Radioactivity and Space. Though there's not, I must add cheekily, anything about electricity!
While the Leah Betts story is a hard one to follow, the other programmes still work on a similar human level. In Radioactivity, we see sporting injuries diagnosed using isotopes and scientists searching for atomic bomb making terrorists, while curriculum imperatives like half-lives and types of radiation are covered. In Genetics we join dog breeders and learn how they breed faster greyhounds and nastier pit bull terriers. And along the way, we pick up the science of genes, such as dominance and DNA.
The programmes have no on-screen presenter, and are all the cleverer for holding together without one. Producer Hugh Mason feels that kids of this age are more cynical and aware of the world so he’s used this ‘real life story’ treatment, as opposed to a presented or ‘in yer face’ science. He sees his job here as helping students get an overview of the subject, "The programmes help to make a framework about the subject, such that the teacher can fill in the depth about say, the working of the hypothalamus. It’s much harder to create that overview if you’ve only a stick of chalk".
Of the BBCs secondary science series, the long running ‘Science in Action’ is used by 68% of schools, while the newer Short Circuit for ages 11-14 scores 38%. That’s a lot of people deciphering TV listings to record programmes, a lot of TV trolleys battling through corridors and for all that, lots of people must value this brilliant resource.
Over the next few years, this two-series offering will continue as hopefully more of what teachers have been saying about what’s needed gets translated into programs.