Family Science: Generating Early Learning in Science

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  • This article was downloaded by: [UOV University of Oviedo]On: 22 October 2014, At: 23:52Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Family Science: Generating Early Learning in ScienceMike Watts aa Froebel Institute College , Roehampton Institute London , Roehampton Lane, London,SW15 5PJ, UKPublished online: 07 Jul 2006.

    To cite this article: Mike Watts (2000) Family Science: Generating Early Learning in Science, Early Child Development andCare, 160:1, 143-154, DOI: 10.1080/0030443001600113

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  • Early Child Development and Care, 2000, Vol. 160, pp. 145-154Reprints available directly from the publisherPhotocopying permitted by license only

    2000 OFA (Overseas Publishers Association) N.V.Published by license under

    the Gordon and Breach Publishers imprint.Printed in Singapore.

    Family Science: Generating Early Learningin Science

    MIKE WATTS

    Froebel Institute College, Roehampton Institute London,Roehampton Lane, London SW15 5PJ, UK

    (Received 26 November 1999)

    This paper explores a semi-formal Intervention which involves school children and theirfamily adults in project work in astronomy. Mixed generation 'family teams' attendedtwo 'family science evenings' at the children's primary schools and undertook to tackleand report on home-based projects over the intervening six week period. The projectsrequired the family teams to collaborate in their learning and the results, in terms ofenhanced interest and enjoyment of astronomy, were very positive. The evaluation ofthe research data considers outcomes at two levels: (i) general evaluative comments,and (ii) gains for the family teams involved. The research raises a number of issues,and highlights that, particularly In such a mixed context as this, precise learning gainsare difficult to assess.

    Key words: Family science

    With a few notable exceptions, most attempts to involve parents in children'slearning have been concerned principally with literacy and numeracy: despite itsrole as a core subject in the curriculum, science is a poor relative. The drive toinvolve parents in children's schooling is not new and, for example, many readingschemes have long had home-school activities. While homework tasks are a commonrequirement in many primary schools, even for the youngest children, parents areusually passive bystanders when it comes to science and their greatest involvementis merely to ensure that school work is completed tidily and on time.

    There are many difficulties surrounding greater parental involvement, such as(i) traditional home/school demarcations and aversions; (ii) lack of parental expertisein the formalised teaching and learning methods expected of schools, (iii) lack ofschool expertise and resources to induct parents into children's learning patterns,and (iv) lack of parental knowledge and understanding of school subject matter.This fourth element is most conspicuous when the learning of science comes intothe picture. Koballa (1995), for example, notes that in general childrens'attitudes towards science appear to become less positive as they progress through

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  • 144 M. WATTS

    early stages of schooling, and become even less positive as young people move onto higher levels. The well known antipathy of adults to science is the far end ofthis continuum. Why this antagonism to learning science exists remains unclear.There are many reasons proffered, though there seem to be no clear andunambiguous signals as to why learners take to their heels all the faster the morescience they do. It does mean, too, that because of teachers' lack of confidenceand familiarity with science it is usually an improbable first-line candidate forhome/school parental involvement in learning.

    Outside of schools the- pattern is different although, when compared to otherareas of school learning, such as language and the arts, science is still fairly sparseon the ground. There is now a small but growing literature on 'family learning'which is concerned with the informal learning contexts of science museums,interactive exhibits, science exploratoria, television programmes, books, comics,cartoons, computer use and field centres. So, for example, Allen (1997), Falk(1997), Gilbert and Priest (1997) and Stevens and Hall (1997) all consider theimpact of museum exhibits on mixed-age groups. In this same volume of papers,Sandifer (1997) points out that the 'learning agendas' of family groups are likelyto be different to 'non-family' groups, and that if the time spent observing amuseum exhibit can be taken as a measure of learning time then family groupsare more learning-centered than non-family groups. Sandifer acknowledges that thenotion of learning in this context is problematic and there are great difficulties indetermining how little or how much members of a family learn in such informalsituations.

    What then might be the key issues involved in 'family learning'? First, the term'family' itself is a loose expression that covers many possible constellations ofchildren and carers. So, in the research reported here there were many variedclusters of adults and children: grandparents with grandchildren, single mothersand single fathers with children (sometimes their natural offspring, sometimes not),aunties and cousins with children, older brothers and sisters, 'family friends' andso on. Second, all the individuals in such clusters have a relationship with each otherthat transcends schools, watching and learning, or science. The social imperativeand status that lies between teacher and pupil is fully absent in a family and anynotion of family learning must therefore embrace the vagaries of the full range offamiliar relationships. Third, the nature of family learning in a home situation willdiffer markedly from school-based learning in a formalised atmosphere. So, forinstance, such informal learning cannot encompass formal uniform didactic methodswith homogeneous school groupings. Fourth, child and adult learning can, at bestbe seen to lie at opposite ends of a spectrum (Brookfield, 1986) or, at worst, areentirely separate entities (Knowles, 1984).

    Given the nature of 'family science' as described in this paper, the discussionmoves back and forth between children's learning and adult learning, and betweenthat which takes place in classrooms and in everyday life, by which is meant

    (i) formal learning settings (classrooms, schools, colleges, universities);(ii) informal learning situations (daily life, libraries, museums, work);

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  • GENERATING EARLY LEARNING IN SCIENCE

    (iii) children learning science (in this instance, in primary classrooms);(iv) adults learning science (both formally and informally),

    and which can be represented in the matrix in Figure 1 below:

    145

    Children's learning

    Adults'learning

    Formalsettings

    Schoolscience,curriculum,lessons

    college,university,night classes,professionalcourses

    Informalsettings

    TV, books,magazines,museums

    work, experience,health, hobbies,news, internet

    figure 1

    Opportunities for learning in formal systems are usually overt and fixed formalcourses are constructed by curriculum specialists who shape this provision. On theother hand, informal learning generally takes place at the learner's own behest,is primarily self-organised, may occur incidentally and from a range of sources andmaterials, and can normally take place under conditions of the learner's choosing.So, for instance, learning about astronomy during a formal course on, say, astrophysicswill contrast quite sharply with that which is learned through leaflets, televisionprogrammes, magazine articles, conversations and through experience.

    FAMILY SCIENCE

    The Family Science Project has its basis in a series of 'family science evenings' inthree primary schools (Watts and Hollins, 1998). Unlike more passive situations,such as texts, television or museum exhibits, this project is a 'learning intervention'which seeks to bring family members together in a common purpose and to createa clear 'learning agenda'. The evenings described here have surroundingcontemporary topics in astronomy where children and adults have been drawntogether for an 'evening of fun and learning', and hence encouraged into collaborativelearning. This collaboration has taken place both within the family science evenings,within home settings and between home and school.

    In outline, the Family Science Project has been developed with infant and primaryschool, within the southwest region of London. Each participant school has advertised

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  • 146 M. WATTS

    and promoted two linked family science evenings, where 'family teams' have beeninvited to participate in a range of activities, along with the Headteacher andinterested teachers from appropriate classes. The schools have commonly identifieda particular class of children usually between the ages of 7 and 10 although inone school any child could attend and the age range extended from 511. The twolinked evenings at each school have been separated by a period of some six weeks(Figure 2), during which the family teams tackle a series of practical problems andproject tasks. Among other presentations and activities, the same family teams thenreport back or exhibit their project outcomes during the second evening.

    Evening 1 Evening 2

    Figure 2

    As has already been noted, the term 'family' has been used very loosely to includethe children within a particular class, their parents or guardians, grandparents,older brothers and sisters, relatives and family friends. In practice, 'family teams'were multi-generational and usually consisted of between one and three adults toan assemblage of three to five youngsters. The evening sessions at each school havefollowed a similar format. The ingredients of both have been:

    (i) an interesting environment (in a classroom or school hall) of posters, displaysand materials relating to astronomy,

    (ii) direct input a brief lecture/demonstration on aspects of astronomy;(iii) a quiz, 'fun activities', practical tasks, discussion and problem solving in astronomy.

    THE FAMILY SCIENCE EVENINGS

    Three primary schools (A, B and C) agreed to participate in the project, and oneschool (A) enjoyed the process so much that they invited the research team toreturn for a second cycle of work. The three schools chosen were quite large (some500 children on roll), and two were particularly proud of their good home-schoolrelationships. Each school had good multi-media capacity on site. In two schools(B and C), the first evening was preceded a week or so by a school assembly duringthe day, where the children were given a lively and exuberant talk about astronomy,and where the Family Science Nightwere advertised in order to generate enthusiasm.Invitations and leaflets were then sent home with the children and the FamilyScience Evenings were then widely advertised around the schools and in home-school literature and communications.

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  • GENERATING EARLY LEARNING IN SCIENCE 147

    The attendance on each occasion was as follows:

    School A: (1st occasion)(2nd occasion)

    School B:School C:

    Evening 142285422

    Evening 242252715

    Each family team consisted of between 4 and 7 members, and the number ofteams varied between 3 and 8. The most common grouping was one adult to threechildren, although this varied considerably with sometimes three generationsrepresented within one group. Some decline in numbers between the two sessionswas to be expected and the schools received apologies from some families indicating,for example, that they could not attend the second meeting because it was a child'sbirthday party; because the boys in the family were entered for a swimmingcompetition that night, or because there was no babysitter for the youngest childrenin the household. Moreover, the more marked decline in attendance for the secondevening at School B happened to coincide with a key international soccer matchon television that n igh t That said, School A proved to be a very interested audienceand the Headteacher wrote to the research team to congratulate them on a 0%drop-out rate.

    Schools A and B can be described as city schools, although within predominatelymiddle-class catchment areas. School C is an inner city school in a socially deprivedarea. At this school, the Headteacher commented that it was an uphill struggle toattract parents into the school for any activity, let alone a science evening. In theevent, even though the attendance was low, the school was delighted to receivefamilies who attended both nights, were interested and keen to participate.

    The resources provided by the project to the schools included:

    (i) the Family Science Project Research Team. Two presenters shared the overallorganisation of the evenings, with the assistance of two or three 'helpers'.These helpers were paid recruits from a range of undergraduate universitycourses and were employed not only to help service the smooth running ofthe evenings, but also for assisting in the production of the resource materialsto the schools. These were:

    (ii) the Family Project Pack. This pack was made available for use on the eveningand for each team to take home, and contained 'starter' materials, projectactivities, library and internet advice, a certificate of attendance, paper andfolders; and

    (iii) the School Resource Pack. This pack was given to the school to keep andthe materials were made available for children to use within school time orafter school hours, however appropriate. These resources consist of threeCD roms on astronomy, one set of binoculars for night observations, aselection of reference books on astronomy, posters and school-based astronomymaterials.

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  • 148 M. WATTS

    WHY ASTRONOMY?

    While one might argue that there are a multitude of topics within science much'closer to home* than astronomy, the decision to focus here was made for severalreasons:

    (i) astronomy has a strong 'salience factor' (Watts et al, 1997) and high levelsof fascination, awe and wonder can be easily generated to engage learnersquickly with the topics involved;

    (ii) few adults (including teachers) expect to have immediate, knowledge andunderstanding in the area and so they come to the project with few threatsto their self-esteem of self-confidence. They can easily admit to 'not knowing'and so be party to 'family learning' with a low level of initial expertise;

    (iii) there have been several widely publicised events in space which provide thebasis for discussion and debate, for example: the Hale-Bopp comet, the solareclipse in the UK, the Mirr Space Station, possible collisions between Earthand asteroids, the Mars landing and probes; possible microscopic life-formson incoming meteorites;

    (iv) there is a growing bank of resources from which to draw for information andideas, based in schools, homes and within local community facilities. Theseinclude children's texts, television programmes, CD roms and internet websites.These last two have lent an interesting dimension to family learning so that in some instances even the youngest children have greater expertisethan their adult co-learners.

    The evenings were built around a team quiz, slide presentations by the presentersand activities for the participants. The presentations illustrated, for example, a'tour' of the Solar System, a description of galaxies close to and including the MilkyWay, the Hubble telescope and a discussion of the possibilities of extra-terrestriallife. The general tone of the evenings was one tailored for a mixed age and 'mixed-interest' audience and the initial 'quiz' served to orientate the family teams towardsastronomy and to illustrate that most people in the audience do have some backgroundknowledge of facts and information. This has also helped to unify the teams so thatthey began to develop a work pattern (taking turns, adopting roles, sharingresponsibilities). The level of approach was designed to be as close as possible tothe requirements of the UK's National Curriculum in Science at Key Stage 2,although this was extended in parts to gain adult interest too. The activities forparticipants included the quiz, the construction of a planisphere, the Presentationof a constellation using 'luminous stars', some night sky observations and a seriesof test problems for 'alien life'. The second cycle of evenings at School A wasconcerned with the solar eclipse of August 1999, and the activities then includeddifferent forms of observation of a total eclipse.

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  • GENERATING EARLY LEARNING IN SCIENCE 149

    THE HOME PROJECTS

    These were suggested projects. The description here presents the first Project insome detail with the others described only in outline but following a very similarpattern:

    /^Project 1: Be a Mars explorerwhat would itbeUke to live on Mars?Would it be warm in the daytime? Is there any rain? Whatwould your house be like? Where would your food comefrom? Who would your neighbours be? This project meansfinding out what Mars is like and what it would be like for

    V explorers to live and work on Mars.

    Project 2: Sun and shadows: a project about eclipses.Project 3: Journey into space: the purpose of recent space missions.Project 4: Comets and shooting stars what are they made of?Project 5: The man in the Moon the purpose of the lunar landings.Project 6: Constellations: the many star patterns in the night sky.Project 7: Asteroids what are they?Project 8: Is there life anywhere else in the universe, apart from Earth?

    Family teams were encouraged to respond to these projects in a variety of waysincluding use of multimedia approaches and the internet, and to involve, as manymembers of the team as possible in undertaking different parts of the project

    DATA AND RESEARCH OUTCOMES

    The following data were gathered during the course of the Family Science activitiesat the schools, a total of:

    (i) 10 interviews with children and adults in family groups.(ii) 4 interviews with teachers.(iii) 28 completed questionnaires at the end of each second evening.(iv) 19 projects undertaken.(v) Considerable informal feedback through conversation and letters.

    The key question behind this research work was outlined above: To what extentdo acts of learning in 'Family Science groups' enhance children's learning andunderstanding of science? The outcomes are reported here at three levels:

    1. general outcomes,2. gains by the family group.

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  • 150 M. WATTS

    Other outcomes to this research are reported elsewhere (Watts and Hollins, 1998;Watts, 1999, in press).

    Level 1: General Outcomes

    At the general level, families reported spending between 10 and 30 hours on theirproject work beyond the 4 hours occupied by the two structured evenings. Thesecond set of projects on the Solar Eclipse at School A engaged family groups foran average of 30 hours, although this was during school holiday tune and the eclipseitself lasts for a good portion of a day.

    The family science evenings were very well received and generated very positiveresponses: adults and children had worked together on projects neither would havesuspected they could have previously tackled. Comments on die evenings have beenvery encouraging:

    "It was good fun I liked the aliens best" (child)."I liked making the planisphere and talking about the planets" (adult)."The quiz was a great idea I hadn't realised how much Jonathon knew

    he answered more questions than I didl" (adult)."The stars were best, and the blow-up (inflatable) moonl" (child).

    Needless to say, the nineteen projects produced by the family groups varied inquality. Some were simple drawings and written accounts by children, while otherswere clearly the work of the whole group. They encompassed an excellent studyof comets, a model Martian land station, poems about stars, a wonderful illustrationof die effects of solar wind, several very competent photographs of stellar objects,a variety of observational tools (such as large pinhole cameras) and models of lunarcraters. It is unsurprising that the project tasks were warmly welcomed and supportedin the two schools located in fairly socially advantageous areas, where there is atradition of parental involvement in after-school activities. The third school, wheresodoeconomic factors may be seen to be less favourable and where diey have usuallyexperienced great difficulty in involving parents in school life, produced die mostmodest of the projects.

    The 'astronomy knowledge' quiz which began the first evening at each schoolwas a clear success: the competition against other families in the room created ateam spirit in the groups which transferred to other activities that followed. Onefamily wrote a humorous letter to the project team threatening litigation becauseone of dieir answers had been declared wrong. They researched the question athome and demanded 'a re-count' when they were able to show that they had infact given a correct response.

    The original idea for Family Science occurred because the parents and familiesof school children seem a section of the general public which might be a 'captiveaudience' and which might be relatively easy to reach. That is, schools and childrenwere a means of reaching into sections of the general public in order to intervenein their learning about science. There are several strong barriers, however, to be

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  • GENERATING EARLY LEARNING IN SCIENCE 151

    overcome in doing so:

    (i) the inertial reluctance of busy people to relinquish a quiet evening at home,or to mitigate other competing demands, in order to participate in an after-hours school event in science;

    . (ii) an oft-felt aversion to learning about science in general, and(iii) the difficulties experienced by some people in attending any function at a

    school (as mentioned earlier).

    The presentation for the children and their parents was designed as a blend of'home-spun availability' with professional organisation and maintenance; thepresentations and the materials were constructed and packaged so as to avoid beingaustere, to be professional and engaging but with a quality of accessibility thatallowed the participants to own some of the activity themselves.

    In many cases, adults found themselves problem-solving in astronomy (andlanguage) without fully realising it

    'I enjoyed projecting the disc of the sun (we have an old 3-inch refractortelescope) onto a white screen to view the sunspots I've never done thisbefore*;

    'I know its warmer, but I can now see why summer evenings are not the besttime for making observations. I see, too, what 'light pollution' means here inthe middle of London. I would never have thought about this without tryingto see the planets';

    'The Family Science nights made us very interested in the eclipse and wegained a lot of information about it';

    'We were in France during the eclipse and had a wonderful time. We hadfound out so much more than our French neighbours and could tell them allabout it over some really good red wine, of course';

    'We couldn't see the double star system in the handle of the Plough that wehad been told about And then we read that, in the past, this used to be aneyesight test for Roman soldiers! We decided we would never be very goodRomans orsoldiers. We probably won't ever be much good at astronomy eithert';

    'I found it very difficult to access some of the website addresses we were given.But I was really delighted when I succeededAl Kelly's and the Comet websiteswere excellent]';

    'Can we have more information, please, about meteor showers? There aresome that are predicted to be spectacular this year';

    'As parents we feel that we are learning all the time at the moment weare gathering information with Luke (our son) about Egyptian astronomers'.

    Level 2: Gains by the Family Group

    On the whole, the responses to the interviews and the questionnaires indicated that,at the very least, the Family Science evenings created an aura of expectation thatadults and children would work together on projects at home. Some responsesindicated that both children and adults could provide, models of learning, so that

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  • 152 M. WATTS

    children followed adults in researching magazines and written materials, but adultssometimes followed childrenparticularly in the use of computer-based informationsystems.

    While families can be powerful and persuasive settings in which adults andchildren work together, they do not always form natural 'learning units'. Theevidence from the interviews and the questionnaires indicated that, while some,families could unite around a common learning goal, others found this too difficultand opted for several responses from within the group rather than a unifiedapproach. So, it was evident that where parents commonly take an interest in theirchildren's school work, this was transferred to the astronomy project

    'We regularly check through their work with them as they finish';'We quite regularly learn together, as we do school work together';'As a family, we are keen on astronomy and Granny, who lives in Sark, has

    a great knowledge and a powerful telescope. Each time we visit Granny, she tellsus facts and interesting information and we have seen various planets andcomets with her';

    'We have season tickets for the Science Museum and visit over four times ayear. Luke (9) and Jessica (7) have enjoyed these tremendously';

    "They (children) do ask many questions which we (adults) are unable toanswerand finding out these answers are normally challenging and fun whenwe tackle them together';

    'We have now been encouraged to invest in science orientated books offeredby a book club'.

    However, in other circumstances, where home-life may not be so conducive tofostering academic success, adults and children were less able to capitalise on theproject work. Schools have variable expertise in astronomy and in the use of multi-media resources, and so the level of support to the families in the six-week projecttime was mixed. While the schools were supportive of the home activities, andprovided teacher time and access to material during out-of-school time, somefamily units needed greater guidance in how to channel the best efforts from allconcerned. It is clear that some children and teachers did make use of thematerials supplied to the schools, though most seemed to have used that whichwas available at home or at their local reference library. Overall, this researchindicates that adults at home need to have a much greater understanding abouthow children learn best, how to structure homework sessions and what learningthey might undertake themselves.

    Again, it is unsurprising that there should be a socio-economic division here, thatmiddle class families are more able to gain from learning systems than others. Itdoes, however, highlight the extent to which the 'family' is not a homogeneousgroup, that previous learning experiences colour future ones, that formal andinformal learning situations need to be very carefully structured to be as inclusiveas possible. For example, home access to reference materials, home computing andinformation systems is not always straight forward or equitably distributed withincommunities, nor are all local libraries always easily accessible. So, although the

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  • GENERATING EARLY LEARNING IN SCIENCE 153

    schools involved in the research were provided with resources and were committedto helping and guiding the project work, this is of limited benefit to those adultsfor whom schooling itself was a dour and forbidding experience in the past

    CONCLUDING COMMENTS

    The aim of this research has, in part, been to harness one of the most powerfuland basic drives in education the desire of parents and carers to help theirchildren succeed. This drive has been used to draw family members into semiformallearning situations in mixed age and mixed-relational learning groups, so that adultshave positioned themselves to learn some astronomy alongside their children. Thisearly, exploratory, project has resulted in a number of implications and unansweredquestions.

    To take two extremes, learning by adults in the public domain is significantlydifferent from children's learning that takes place through formal instructionalsettings, although the precise differences are not always easy to chart. This taskis made all the more difficult when as here the 'learning context' movesbetween the formal and the informal, the public and the private, and betweenchild and adult Individuals have multiple sources from which to construct scientificknowledge and the depth and breadth of this knowledge is likely to be influencedby the context of both its construction and application. In the research reportedhere, the outcomes that have emerged have been 'composite constructions' withina team (or teams) of learners and accurate measures of individual learning gamshave not been attempted. Common measures of 'scientific understanding' aregenerally imprecise and difficult to interpret (Fensham and Harlen, 1999) and,as Solomon (1997) points out, the presence of correct bits of science knowledgein children or adult test scores is not at all the same as them being able to respondto 'science messages' a much more difficult thing to measure. This raises theawkward question of how to develop comprehensive and valid measures of family'understandings' of science. The research reported here used a variety of evaluativetechniques to explore the learning that took place but, in the interests of providinga non-threatening environment, no attempt was made to pre-test and post-test theindividuals who participated. While the team scores on the 'astronomy knowledgequiz' at the start of the proceedings might have provided a baseline count fromwhich to work, the diversity of the project work and the multiple directions inwhich the teams drove towards their outcomes would have rendered a post-quizmeaningless.

    This research, then, opens the way for further work on family learning. Theresearch reported in this paper further illustrates these difficulties all too well:standard evaluative tools to determine the success of an intervention such as thesefamily science evenings are insufficient to clearly focus on the learning gains ofeither children or adults. Moreover, in any attempt to balance between educationand entertainment poses problems for any strict assessment of increasedunderstandings.

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  • 154 M. WATTS

    Finally, there are intricate interactions between individuals' feelings and attitudestowards science, their perceptions of themselves as learners, their understandingsof science and their capacities to act on the knowledge they construct. Moreover,many of the learning gains were attitudinal: the data shows that both children andadults grew in enthusiasm, excitement and enjoyment for the astronomy topics theytackled. This provides greater impetus for a much more rounded model of conceptualchange learning (Alsop and Watts, 1997) which can be applied to adult learningof science in the public domain.

    Acknowledgements

    This research was funded by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.Warm thanks are also due to Dr Martin Hollins, co-presenter and designer; to theRoehampton Institute London helpers: Danielle Bennet, Shauna Campbell, ClaudiaMacDonald, Georgina Nicola, Rebecca Redpath, Clare Stonhold, Marion Weeks;and to Head teacher Richard Johnson for his enthusiasm, comments and feedback.

    References

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