8 Top Tips for First Year Science Teachers!

Welcome to your first year of teaching science!! It is a fantastic job, full of so much excitement and ‘Eureka!’ moments (for you and your students!). But, let’s face it, teaching science is quite daunting. You have all the similar issues of assessment/subject knowledge/exam prep as all the other subjects, but you are doing it in a room with a chemicals, glassware and fire!

There are other things to consider in a science lab when compared to a ‘normal’ classroom.

So, hopefully, these tips will help put your mind at ease, and ensure you have a fab first year as a science teacher!

I am going to touch on the following key areas of teaching Science:

  1. Practical work
  2. Teaching 3 different subjects well
  3. Planning for science
  4. Using the Specification
  5. Working with Science Techs
  6. Engaging Students
  7. Encouraging girls in STEM
  8. Extra-curricular clubs

Practical work.

There is a big difference between practising an experiment/demo with your fellow trainee buddies, in a university lab, under the careful supervision of your subject mentor, to then doing it yourself – alone (well you know, apart from the 30 faces staring at you…). This is the big one, and probably the area I was most nervous about when I first started teaching solo.

When it comes to practical work that you are unsure of, I would really recommend having a go the day/week before. Ask the technicians for the resources needed and spend an hour after school having a practice. Believe me, it will be worth it! There is nothing worse than a demo flopping spectacularly because you didn’t troubleshoot it first… Or even worse, it going wrong and causing a dangerous situation. When I practice an experiment, I also take the opportunity to get some photos of the set up of the equipment/results of the experiment. I can then use these to help my students by adding them to my PPT’s. If they are struggling to set up, they can see an image of that equipment and what it should look like, not just a diagram. Or, if their results end up a bit dodgy, they can see what should have happened and think about why they got different results.

If you do not have the time to practice, then see if any other teachers in your department will be doing the experiment before you, see if you can go and observe. I have done this a few times, and have picked up ideas for how to explain it, what questions to ask or even things to avoid! A very useful exercise.

If that is not a possibility, then YouTube is your friend. You can find videos of pretty much every experiment that you will complete on there. Watch a few different videos until you find a method suitable for your lab/equipment/facilities etc.

The next stage beyond demo’s are letting you class participate in practical work. Letting go of all control is scary the first time you have students complete a lab. This is an area I still cannot get 100% right every time. What I would say is:

  • Think about your instructions very clearly – will the students understand?
  • Have multiple copies of instructions around – I will usually talk through the experiment and model it, give the students a handout with instructions AND have it written on the PPT/whiteboard. That way they SHOULD know what to do (but there will still be students asking you what to do…)
  • Some students will inevitably do something stupid… There are some students who just want to do it their own way. I have shut down a lab many times if just one student starts behaving recklessly. They need to understand the seriousness of their actions, and usually the reaction from the rest of the class makes them pretty reluctant to do the same thing next time.
  • Try to have lab equipment spread out a bit. Nothing worse than 30 kids stampeding to the front to collect equipment! I try to lay out trays with group sets of equipment, if I have time, but this is not always possible.
  • Encourage groups to have a work area that THEY are responsible for and stick to it. I had groups numbered with numbered work stations and numbered trays containing equipment. If on workstation was messy after a lab, I knew who was responsible. Likewise, if I found a tray with missing equipment, I could call on that group to organise themselves and refill their tray.

Teaching 3 subjects well.

Your degree will only usually be based on one of the sciences – Bio, Chem or Phys, I for instance, studied BSc Zoology. Rendering me pretty useless when it comes to Chem and Phys. However, remember, the content you are teaching up to GCSE/Year 11, is all work you have done before. It may have changed slightly, but you do have the basics, somewhere in there! I have to say, looking over concepts that used to baffle me as a GCSE student, I find so simple now, I cannot understand why I struggled so much with it when I was in school… But this realisation is important, try to put yourself in your students shoes. They may be very capable, but they are not getting it, why? What can you do to change your explanation to help them understand clearer?

Utilise the rest of your department: I would spend a lot of my free time hassling my colleagues about how to teach subjects I was unsure of, or which practicals they would recommend. They are experts in their field, so why not utilise that!

Ask for some CPD: If you don’t ask, you don’t get! Usually there will be some fairly local science based PD going on in your area, check out what is around. Sometimes it is even free! If you think your school will be onboard, check out the courses run at the National STEM Centre in York, I have been to a number of CPD sessions there and they are absolutely brilliant. They usually carry a bursary so schools can claim back the cost of the PD too, bonus! (bonus, due to the current pandemic, they are offering more online CPD and some of it is free!)

Look online: There are so many websites with great information to help you with your subject knowledge, here are a few to get you started:

  • SAPS – Plant experiments for all ages, with full technician notes and teacher/student instructions.
  • Royal Society of Chemistry – Education – Lots of ideas and teaching/technical notes for chemistry based experiments.
  • IOP – The Institute of Physics has a variety of practical ideas for teaching 11-18 years.
  • STEM Learning – This website has so much! For all areas of science! Be sure to sign up to this website to access most of the resources, it is free to do so.

Pick up some cheap text books: I did this when I started teaching A level. I would buy a few second hand A level text books, different to the ones being used by students. This gave me a slighter broader scope of what to talk about in my lessons and I found it very useful for finding extra questions to ask students etc.

Planning for science.

It is important to plan your lessons in sequences that ensure the content flows and make sense, ensure students are making progress, and allows room to adapt and teach according to the pace of those particular students.

Science AfL ideas: Most of these AFL ideas work in any subject, but are fab in science too!

  • RAG cards: use for multi-choice questions, to check student understanding, team games etc.
  • Mini whiteboards: Excellent for doing quick quizzes, checking understanding of equations,
  • Kahoot: The ultimate AFL tool! It is great for engaging students and I often use it as a carrot for BfL too. There are lots of pre-made quizzes on there or you can make your own. Students can work individually or in groups. I personally use the individual setting more often than groups. Oh and beware! Always click the setting to make up nicknames for the students, otherwise it is an endless battle of kicking naughty names off the game…
  • Quizlet: Probably my favourite now, even more so than Kahoot (although their music is not as good…) Quizlet is great for encouraging team work and mixes students up randomly so you don’t have to! There are loads of science question sets already available or you can make your own. I often use this to check understanding of key vocabulary.

This is a small list of my go-to’s, for more ideas, I also highly recommend checking out the Teacher Toolkit website, loads of great ideas!

Technology is here, like it or not, so we need to use it and encourage our students to use it more often and how to use it well. I enjoy doing research based lessons occasionally, my last school used G suite, which was amazing. I had all my lessons planned through the Google Classroom so students could access content whenever and complete assignments from home if they were ill (or, say, if there was a pandemic..). I could also set up research based lessons, with key questions for students to research along with recommended websites to get them started. I would spend time going through how to use search engines and whether websites looked like reliable sources of information or not. I would also throw their essays and work into a plagiarism checker every now and then. Weirdly, the students loved it! Especially the ones who passed.. The ones who didn’t would then spend the rest of the lesson editing their own work to make it more unique and would then check it themselves using the same websites, declaring proudly to me ‘Miss! My work is now 100% unique!’ Very sweet and a lesson learnt.

Using the Specification

The specification is your ultimate teaching guide. Whoever your exam board is; AQA, Edexcel, OCR, WJEC etc. their websites will be a good place to start when planning your lessons.

I would say, with exam classes, don’t stray too far from the specification when teaching. They cannot examine on anything that is not on the specification, so it is definitely what you should be teaching first. Do use real world examples to aid your teaching, but try not to end up on an unrelated tangent!

Past papers are usually found on the exam board website, or you school may already have copies. Use past papers a lot. It helps students see the sorts of questions they will face and it will feel a lot less scary when they are in the exam. Also share the mark schemes with your students, once they have attempted the questions. This will show them the sorts of answers/level of detail required, along with how to use key words in their answers (the area most students tend to fall down on is not including keywords!).

Make revision check lists to give to students using the specification as a guide – this way you can ensure that the students are revising all the content. This takes a bit of work to do from scratch, but I have seen some pretty good ones for free on TES.

Show students where to find it: Quite often students know something of the specification or may have seen their teachers using it. But in my second year of teaching I started actively showing my students where to find it when they started GCSE’s. This included then showing them the website and how to access it and getting them to take a photo on their phones of the address. Now, however, with the increase in online teaching platforms like Google Classroom, you could share a direct link with them that way.

Working with your Science technicians.

Arguably the most important person/people in the science department… And I am not just saying this because I used to be one!

Usually science technicians are sparse within a science department – maybe one or two max, with one usually part-time (if not both). This is such a shame, science techs can do so much for a science department and it is a role that is undervalued in my opinion.

Get on your science techs good side by always giving plenty of notice for experiments (most departments will have a cut off point for requests for the following week). If you are doing something that requires fresh ingredients (onions/celery/milk/pond weed), give extra notice and see who else might be using it that week so your poor tech doesn’t needlessly do multiple shopping trips. Check how long is needed for ordering things like hearts/lungs for dissections – some schools will have built good relationships with local butchers/abattoirs, but may need more notice.

Talk to them! You would be amazed at the knowledge and wisdom an experienced science tech has, they have seen it all… If you are not sure of something, ask them, they probably know some tips and tricks to make your practical work, work!

Engaging students.

Even though we have experiments to increase engagement in Science, I would say more than half the students I have taught would say they don’t like science, or they don’t feel smart enough to be good at science. This is an idea we really need to discourage! We need to make sure that our lessons are engaging and providing just the right amount of challenge.

One way that I have tried to increase student engagement is to try and make it more relatable to them. When you know your students well enough, you will be able to relate different aspects of science to the students interests, and then you will have them hooked!

  • Use a ‘get to know you’ worksheet early in the year and take an hour to actually read student answers! See what stands out that you can link your lessons to.
  • Got girls obsessed with makeup? Show them the devastating impact of Mica, a common ingredient in makeup – link to chemistry.
  • For all the sport fans – Muscles and bones, respiration: discuss how athletes enhance their body through training and look at the Biology behind it.
  • Food! One thing everyone has in common… We all eat! There is so much you can do with food. From looking at health, molecules, sources of food, preservation of food… It is only as limited as your imagination!

Encourage girls to enjoy STEM.

This is so important, we need to show girls that science is for them too. One of the best ways to do this is through equal representation of male and female scientists. This could be in your displays, or in your lessons. Try to have an equal number of male and female scientists in your lessons, this will show girls that it is equally normal for a woman to be a scientist as a man.

If you would like to read more about this, I wrote a whole blog post about it here.

Extra-curricular clubs etc.

Do volunteer to be a part of an after school club in the science department. If there isn’t one, offer to set one up! Not only will this show your HOD and SLT how keen you are, it is a great opportunity to complete some of the fun experiments that there is not enough space for in the curriculum AND bonus, you get to know more of the pupils really well. Building relationships is so important in the job, if you can form a relationship with some year 7’s in science club, imagine where you will be with them by the time they get to their exams in year 11!

A few notes about this:

  • Plan ahead (I would recommend being at least a half term ahead).
  • Give your science tech’s plenty of notice for required equipment.
  • Struggling for ideas?
    • Join up to Stem learning it has lots of great practicals and worksheets, and a whole section for running science clubs.
    • TES has a lot of science club ideas that you can download for free, along with some you can pay for.

OK, so my quick list turned into something a lot longer, if you have made it this far, well done!

I hope that you take something away from this list and that you enjoy your first year as a science teacher, hopefully the first of many! Best of luck to you all ❤

If you have any questions about teaching science or anything mentioned above, please feel free to comment or get in touch via email!

K

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