Brighton Sparks

This year I trialled a new initiative at my school called Brighton Sparks. Aimed at our most able and gifted pupils in years 8-10 and offered as part of our existing programme of co-curricular activities, it ran successfully (albeit largely via Google Meet) in spite of extended periods of site closure due to COVID-19.

The aim of Brighton Sparks is to help pupils develop academic writing and supra-curricular study skills such as independent learning, secondary research, time management and referencing. These qualities are sadly overlooked by many schools and yet are essential attributes, not only for study at IGCSE and A Level but also beyond. For instance, in a recent survey of university admissions officers, almost half of respondents felt that UK students were not prepared for the step-up to higher education, citing, in particular, a lack of good written English and an inability to think and learn independently:

‘…all respondents unanimously agreed that students must ensure they are “ready to think and learn independently” when asked how students could be better prepared to thrive while successfully completing their degree.’

‘…52 per cent felt they were “unable to carry out extended writing”, and the same number “unable to remember facts, possessing a ‘Google-it’ mentality”

At my school, these skills are already embedded throughout the curriculum but for those pupils who are consistently high achievers or demonstrate a propensity for a particular subject, Brighton Sparks offers them an exciting opportunity to be stretched and challenged even further in areas of their own interest and expertise.

Along with weekly university-style tutorials on topics including Harvard referencing, academic writing, university vs school, and the differences between searching and researching a topic, the pupils were assigned a supervisor (a specialist teacher) with whom they worked one-to-one, and were tasked with writing a 2000 word essay that was marked in accordance with the British Undergraduate Degree Classification System.

The pupils also received presentation skills training and were required to present their research findings to, and field questions from, their teachers and peers (much like a PhD viva voce). At the end of the school year, the pupils received a certificate in assembly and their essays were published in our very own College journal, ‘The Spark.’

Brighton Sparks certificate

This is how it worked…

In the autumn term, pupils in years 8-10 who had been identified as being able and/or gifted (using their stanine baseline, calculated using the GL battery of assessments and teacher referrals) were invited to participate in Brighton Sparks via an in-school introductory presentation and a letter home to parents. At the same time, teachers volunteered to become supervisors and prepared a small number of essay questions on topics in which they had a particular interest and expertise.

Academic essay titles

I produced a guide which I shared with pupils detailing the Brighton Sparks process but also providing support on how to plan and write an academic essay, referencing and presentation skills. Additional resources were shared with pupils via a Brighton Sparks Google Classroom.

The Brighton Sparks guide shared with pupils

Brighton Sparks got underway in the summer term. Unfortunately, the school site was closed due to COVID-19 so it was largely delivered online via Google Meet. Each week, the pupils attended university-style tutorials. These were led by specialists within the school and covered a wide range of topics including:

  • Secondary research
  • Planning your essay
  • Academic writing
  • Harvard referencing
  • Boolean operators
  • School vs university
  • Presentation skills

The pupils received support and guidance from their supervisors via email correspondence throughout the research and writing process but they were also encouraged to meet one-to-one with them at least twice during the term and this was the responsibility of the pupils to arrange. Pupils for whom English is an Additional Language (EAL) also received support from our EAL Department.

Supervisors marked the essay first using a simple marking rubric comprising five criteria:

  • Focus and method
  • Knowledge and understanding
  • Critical thinking
  • Presentation
  • Engagement

A small working party then met to moderate the marking and assign final grades in accordance with the British Undergraduate Degree Classification System (e.g. First Class, Upper Second Class, etc.). In addition, the pupils received diagnostic and constructive feedback; they knew exactly what they had done well and what they could do in order to improve their work.

Finally, the pupils were tasked with delivering a short (<5 minutes) presentation on their research and a reflection of the process as a whole to their peers and teachers, from whom they also successfully fielded questions.

Feedback from participating pupils and staff has been hugely positive (see below) and the model is simple enough to be replicated and / or adapted elsewhere with ease.

‘Brighton Sparks has been such a great experience for me. I have learned so much that I know will help me with the rest of my school career and professional career’ – Year 9 pupil

‘It’s been a pleasure to have this opportunity’ – Year 9 pupil

‘Marvellous experience – I really enjoyed the conversations we have had and the hard work and interest [the pupil] took in this subject’ – Supervisor

‘I loved having the opportunity to study something that I am so interested in and to discuss it with my supervisor’ – Year 8 pupil

‘I have already used what I learned in Brighton Sparks in my Science lessons’ – Year 10 pupil

Looking ahead, I would like to build on what has already been established this year by:

  • extending Brighton Sparks to include more year groups;
  • incorporating more research-based projects (e.g. in Science, Psychology, Sport Science, etc);
  • arranging tutorials with external speakers including industry leaders and academics;
  • offering trips and visits; and
  • disseminating supra-curricular skills by asking Brighton Sparks pupils to lead assemblies and workshops for others.

If you have any questions about Brighton Sparks or would like to share how your school provides for AG&T pupils I would be very interested to hear from you.

Oreo Plate Tectonics and Moon Phases

A couple of nice activities using Oreo cookies (or in my case, cheaper alternatives).

Plate tectonics

Explain that the upper cookie is the lithosphere, the creamy filling is the asthenosphere, and the lower cookie is the lower mantle. Begin by simulating the motion of the rigid lithosphere plate over the softer asthenosphere by sliding the upper cookie over the cream. Then break the top cookie in half and simulate a divergent plate boundary by sliding the two cookie halves apart.

Snip20160721_4

Push one cookie half under the other to make a convergent plate boundary.

Snip20160721_3

Finally, simulate a transform plate boundary by sliding the two cookie halves past one another. Students should feel and hear that the two ‘plates’ do not glide smoothly past one another (thus modelling the earthquakes that occur at transform fault lines such as San Andreas).

Snip20160721_2

Moon phases

Simply remove the top cookie to reveal the creamy filling beneath. Scrape away and shape the cream to show the phases of the moon. Students should draw the relative location of the Earth and label the phases. Great as a revision tool or plenary.

image4

Forces Dance Mat

This is a great activity for introducing students to drawing force diagrams and resultant force. I have taken the idea directly from TES (the hugely popular original is available here) but I have made my own version in order to emphasise that the length of the arrow shows the size of the force. Obviously any music can be used to accompany it but I have always found that Gangnam Style works well (some of the students even do the dance moves as they jump about!).

Start the music, start the presentation and then jump in the direction of the resultant force. Have fun!

Motion Obstacle Course

I have just started the topic of Motion with my Year 9 students and used an obstacle course as an active way to introduce speed, distance and time equations.

obstacle course

The students set up an obstacle course in the sports hall (balance beams, hopscotch, cones, a wall to climb over etc.) Then, working in pairs, one member of each team tackled the course whilst the other timed them and recorded how long it took to complete each section. The students also recorded the length of each section using a measuring tape e.g. balance beam = 3m, hoops = 8m.

Now that the students knew the distance and the time taken, they could work out the speed at which they completed each obstacle. Finally, the students were asked to plot a distance-time graph (which lead nicely onto the follow-up lesson in which we looked at motion graphs using DynaKars).

Canva

Canva is a free online graphic design tool which can be used to make beautiful posters, infographics, presentations and many other things. It is extremely simple to use and features a vast library of templates, fonts and photographs to choose from.

My AS level biology students have recently used Canva to create eyecatching infographics summarising the structure and properties of biological molecules. I think they look great!

Allopatric Speciation in the Lower Congo River

Central Africa’s Lower Congo River is home to an extraordinary assortment of fish—many truly bizarre. This  video by Science Bulletins, the American Museum of Natural History’s current-science channel, features Museum scientists on a quest to understand why so many species have evolved there. It provides an excellent case study of allopatric speciation and helps to dispel the myth that populations only ever become isolated on islands. A Google Form worksheet to accompany the video is available here.