Faculty blog: Science, progress and ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’

2019 was designated as the ‘International Year of the Periodic Table’ by the United Nations as it marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Dmitry Mendeleev’s first published version. The development of the periodic table is one of the topics covered in GCSE science, but there is much more to it than just an interesting lesson in the history of science. There is a lot that can be learned from the process that went into creating the design that you probably remember from your classroom walls and can now be found on clothes, mugs, notebooks, lunchboxes, shower curtains, thermos flasks and water bottles (and that’s just in one teacher’s house!).

Mendeleev was not the first to organise the known chemical elements into patterns, but there was something that made his table stand out from all the others at the time – he was the first to assume that there could still be more elements to discover. In fact, at the time his version was published, it contained just 63 elements. The most up-to-date tables now are a list of 118, since the addition of Nihonium, Moscovium, Tennessine and Oganesson in 2016 (which instantly became firm favourites among regular viewers of Pointless!) Even the song that Tom Lehrer wrote in 1959 acknowledges that there might still be more work to be done – after he lists the first 102 elements to the tune of a Gilbert and Sullivan song, he sings: “These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, and there may be many others but they haven’t been discovered”. In the science faculty, we are trying to encourage students to have an awareness of the limitations of their knowledge and how they can improve their skills and understanding. After a piece of work, we encourage students to reflect on its strengths and weaknesses and to set targets for the future. This is then checked by their teacher and they are given opportunities to improve and develop their skills for the future.

If you look on the edge of a £2 coin, you might see the inscription ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. This is the second half of a message written by Isaac Newton in 1676 to a fellow scientist: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Isaac Newton and Dmitry Mendeleev both knew that – while their ultimate discoveries and ideas were very important, they were only able to achieve their success by building on knowledge that others had acquired and that they had understood and used. In science, we are very aware of the need to build on knowledge systematically and logically. For this reason, we design and structure our lessons so that the skills being taught are revisited regularly throughout the five years at National and we make it as clear as possible exactly how each lesson fits into the wider understanding of a topic. Our hope is that this encourages students to access what they learned in previous lessons, help them remember it for longer and leave with a fuller understanding of how their science lessons fit together as a whole. Collaboration and teamwork are also a vital part of scientific discovery. Students and professionals must both learn how to work together, challenge ideas sensitively and use each other’s strengths and skills to get the best possible results. This is why you will see students working together in groups a lot during science lessons – the body of the academy is stronger when all of its members work together to support each other.

I’m sure you have experienced the frustration of checking a weather forecast that promises blue skies all day, then stepped outside to see dark clouds and heavy rain. “Why don’t the weather team just look out of the window?” we cry in frustration as we rush back inside for a coat and umbrella. That was what made Mendeleev’s periodic table so special – he studied the elements that he was ordering in detail and made sure that his design actually matched up with reality. Previous versions had elements that were nothing like each other arranged into groups suggesting they reacted in similar ways and had similar properties. It would be a bit like visiting a zoo and finding that someone had put the donkeys in the same enclosure as the monkeys just because they thought the names sounded similar. There’s nothing wrong with suggesting an idea and exploring it, but it has to be backed up with our experiences in real life too. This is why we place such importance on practicals in lessons – we need to be able to show that the science we teach about is supported by evidence. Students at National learn how to use evidence from experiments to support or disprove hypotheses and we are always looking to match theory with practice as much as possible in the classrooms. The experience of doing practicals is one of the joys of teaching and learning science – most people can remember some of the experiments they saw or did when they were at school and we hope our current students will leave with lots of happy memories of things they have seen in science classrooms.

As we look forward to STEM week in March, self-reflection, collaboration and using evidence are some of the skills we hope to develop in our key stage 3 students as we prepare for the science fair and poster competition. Students in years 7 and 8 will be given the chance to design, plan, carry out and analyse an experiment before presenting their results to their peers, with the best ones competing for prize at the end of the competition. We wish all of the students taking part good luck and hope they will value the experience of working in the style of a research scientist to make discoveries.

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