Category Archives: science

Some thoughts on Iain Gray’s Scottish Science Education debate

Squeezed into a corner in a very busy Wholefoods in Giffnock on Saturday afternoon, I took some time to read the very interesting Scottish Parliament Official Report of the debate in the name of Iain Gray on the report by the Learned Societies Group on Scottish science education.


To some extent the report is out of my field. I don’t work in school education and this was primarily a debate about young people and their science education. However, I thought some points were worth my tuppence.

Opening the debate Iain Gray (East Lothian – Lab) highlighted an aspect of the report which found that

98 per cent of schools surveyed were drawing on external funding in order to marshal enough resources to teach science (col 79)

And that’s exactly the situation I’ve found myself in for the Outdoor Science project that I’ve been putting together with West College Scotland Clydebank (WCSC) and the Scottish Youth Hostelling Association (SYHA) (and which I really should have written about before now). We don’t have the money, WCSC don’t have the money and we’re indebted to the SYHA for funding the first programme and to the John Mathers Trust for funding the second. We’re still some money short from funding the third class. I think if we are serious about encouraging radically different ways of teaching science then we need to think about exactly what it is we’re funding when the usual sums of money are handed over.

Elaine Murray (Dumfriesshire – Lab) made two points that caught my attention. The first one was

Children and young people can be enthused about or turned off science at an early age. Teachers and family members can make or break a child’s interest in science, so it is vital that primary school pupils are introduced to the sciences by teachers who are enthusiastic and confident. (col 83)

I don’t disagree, but what about the parents? How do parents gain that enthusiasm and confidence? Murray offered no solution.

Adults can of course spend the day in one of the national science centres that Alasdair Allan (Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages – SNP) described as

one of the jewels in the crown of science in schools, and more generally throughout Scotland (my emphasis, col 92)

and yes, maybe adults with little understanding of science go along to Glasgow Science Centre with their kids in the hope that they will become more science literate than themselves. I can imagine that. But I suspect it would need longer term engagement than a single afternoon’s entertainment. Perhaps we need a national science strategy so that adults can get a right grip on theories of electromagnetism 😉

I don’t disagree that maths as the language of science presents difficulties for some people. Many of the MSPs think so; Iain Gray makes the point in his opening remarks, Liz Smith (Conservative – Mid Scotland and Fife) makes the point and Nigel Don (Angus North and Mearns – SNP). Don’s point was particularly interesting because he wasn’t talking about science but the perception of it.

When I was young, the science subjects were perceived as being more difficult, and when my children were young the science subjects were still perceived as being more difficult…,and science will not come naturally to someone who is not particularly numerate. (col 89)

This is why memorable practical demonstrations and activities are so important, and for this simple reason: it’s possible to understand something of the science without knowing the maths that underpin that science. Talking about this today, a colleague said that activities and demonstrations provided people with a peg to hang their imagination onto. I thought that was a brilliant thing to say. I think it’s possible to be enthused by something as simple as a magnet falling through a copper pipe.

And I think that can happen at any age.

But, mostly, and at least in my limited experience, science classes gets caught up in the principles of the science as they’re represented by mathematics. Science classes become maths class. I really do hope that Liz Smith is right when she said

we are on the cusp of doing exciting things in science teaching (col 86)

Going back to that underlined bit in Dr. Allan’s remarks about science centres, it really caught my attention that he said ‘in schools’. He didn’t say in Scottish education, just ‘in schools’. Granted this was set as a debate about science in schools but it did range onto the subject of universities, graduate salaries (because people who do science don’t get wages) and employment, the economy, but not once was FE mentioned. I’d even hazard a guess that no-one even gave FE a second thought. Maybe that’s because the MSPs don’t think that science is studied and used by FE students

Smith quite rightly observes that science teaching has tended to be knowledge dominated at he expense of process. That struck me particularly forcefully because only the other day I’d been reading in The Guardian,A radical experiment to end science practicals? That’s just not true‘ by Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual, that

The only elements of practical work that have to be assessed by the teacher should be the student’s ability to select the right equipment, use it sensibly, and log the results intelligently – essential technical skills.

They are indeed essential technical skills, but perhaps not only in the area that you’d imagine. This brings me back to the second point that Elaine Murray made

We need to encourage the offering of high-quality apprenticeships in science (col 84)

because the skills that Glenys Stacey identifies as so important are precisely the skills required of an electrician in the four out of the nine National Occupational Standards that underpin the Electrical Installation SVQ. They’re skills required in

  • testing electrical circuits
  • commissioning systems
  • diagnosing faults
  • maintaining systems

And they’re also precisely the essential skills that I’ve written into the Electrical Science Course Unit of the Electrical Installation SVQ. I really must admit that I find it particularly irritating that when a scientist or a ‘high-quality’ apprentice scientist uses these skills then they’re essential scientific skills, but when an electrician apprentice uses the same skills they are …, well they don’t get a mention in a science debate that’s for sure. There’s a larger cultural point to be made here. Perhaps we don’t need a national strategy after all; perhaps we just need to acknowledge that a lot of ordinary working people already use some of the skills and processes that scientists use in their everyday working life. I’m not for a minute suggesting that electricians should be reclassified as scientists. But if we could recognise that, as a stepping stone to a wider debate about national science literacy, then maybe there would be a beneficial knock-on effect on how parents discuss science with their children.


The Scottish Parliament Official Report: Meeting of The Parliament, 21 January 2015, Session 4, col 78-92,

File:Mandochera, Wikimedia Commons, jfmelero,, accessed 08 February 2015, CC-BY-SA 4.0

The World’s First Electric Generator, uploaded by veritasium, YouTube,, accessed 08 February 2015, Standard YouTube Licence

Thanks to Donna for the overhead shot of me.


Constructing a cultural norm with maths sets

So Graeme, what’s the secret?

Now, it’s not often I get mistaken for a sphinx, and since the question came out of the blue I was admittedly a little unprepared.

My interlocutor was a lecturer in plumbing and gas at West College Scotland (Paisley) and he was remarking on the recruitment of nearly thirty adult trainees in the area compared to only four plumbing apprentices.

Probably a lucky alignment of stars, I offered, hoping I could turn the conversation onto Capaldi’s first appearance as Dr Who. No such luck.

So we discussed economic conditions, employer confidence, previous experiences with apprentices or trainees, our relationship with the industry, and to be honest I wasn’t so much articulating a list of well thought through reasons as producing an  Emsworthian dribble of stating the bloody obvious.

Either way we were both dissatisfied by these well trodden explanations because much of the macro economic condition of the construction industry experienced by electrical contractors was bound to be similarly experienced by plumbing contractors.

There was also, I suggested, a cultural norm of apprenticeship recruitment within the electrical contracting community such that even at the depth of the economic recession the industry was still recruiting four hundred plus apprentices and adult trainees.

That was a kind of interesting thing to hear myself say, and I was left wondering how such a cultural norm is produced or established.

Es un día fantástico con sol. (Dëdalus)

Alongside doing a Future Learn MOOC, ‘Basic Science: Understanding Numbers‘, I’ve started reading Daniel Tammet’s book Thinking in Numbers. The first chapter, ‘Family Values’, uses set theory to explain how his nine siblings were considered legion in his local community. It’s a grand read. This way of thinking was new to me, and I’ve spent the last forty-eight hours in a bit of a maths induced daydream. I think I’ve grasped the basics and so here it might be necessary to take a deep breath.

In space an adult trainee is either in place x, or some other place, y. It doesn’t matter where exactly, the trainee is either here or there. Now the same applies for every other trainee, individually, and combined in every possible configuration with any of the other trainee or trainees in the set.

So, if we start with the plumbing apprentices and looking at them as a set, this can be written as

S = {p1, p2, p3, p4}

The set of all subsets is calculated by multiplying 2 by itself by the toal number of objects in the set. So for the plumbing apprentices the set of all subsets is calculated by multiplying two, by itself, four times.  This is equal to

2 x 2 x 2 x 2=16

which means that there are sixteen different ways to spot one or more of these apprentices. I would suggest that given the large area of Renfrewshire and Inverclyde that they’ve been recruited in, bumping into a plumbing apprentice in the area seems unlikely.

However, if we do the same with the group of twelve adult trainee electricians that started last week, the set can be written as

S = {at1, at2, at3, at4, Aat5, at6, at7, at8, at9, at10, at11, at12}

with the subset of all sets being equal to multiplying two, by itself, twelve times.  This is equal to

2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 4,096

So now, and with only three times as many members in this set, there are four thousand and ninety-six different ways to spot one or more of these trainees: this I find incredible, and it goes a long way to explain how a cultural norm is constructed. Even though there are only twelve of them it must seem like these guys are everywhere.



File:Louvre sphinx.jpg, Wikimedia Commons,, accessed 25th August 2014

Es un día fantástico con sol. (Dëdalus), taken by Ignacio Sanz, Flickr, uploaded on 23 August 2008,, accessed 24 August 2014, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Tammett, D, (2012) Thinking in Numbers: How Maths Illuminates Our Lives, Hodder & Stoughton, London