Friday, 9 September 2016

Running a Primary School Science Club

I've run a science club with another volunteer parent for the last two years (she's a proper scientist!) I recently met Kate Bellingham (who used to present Tomorrow's World) and she is now involved in the School Gate SET, an initiative to get parents helping out with STEM initiatives in their children's schools. Kate mentioned that it would be useful to write up our experience to help others.

We run our science club at lunch-time for children in Year 3 in the UK (age 7-8.) This means that all children have the opportunity to attend. They are all strongly encourages to attend the first session to find out what it's all about and then it's their choice whether they come back for the remaining 5 sessions. Most of them do!

The club is 30 minutes long and we've experimented with alternating groups and running two groups one after the other. The latter approach works better for busy parent helpers as they only have to commit to 6 weeks.

The experiments are all very hands-on. There's very little watching and lots of doing. We try and do the kinds of experiments that are difficult to do with a large group of children and a low ratio of adults.

We use proper science equipment including plastic test tubes, petri dishes, pipettes and syringes. These are all very inexpensive to purchase and help the children to feel like they are doing proper science. We also provide safety glasses and insist they are worn for most experiments, the materials we use aren't dangerous but it teaches the children good lab practices and it's not nice to get lemon juice in your eye. The children also wear disposable lab aprons to protect their uniforms. (Proper children's lab coats would be nice but they are expensive and would need to be washed taking more time.)

We're lucky enough to have a parent with a science doctorate to run the sessions, I have a computer science doctorate, so not proper science! We've also had a teacher on a career break helping out. The main qualifications though are to be willing to do a bit a reading about the experiments and to be aware of potential safety issues.

Many of the experiments we use come from a science birthday party that I hosted for my younger son when he turned six. The children did lots of experiments in quick succession with a focus on fun rather than scientific detail. This gave us enough experiments for several weeks of science club, and the confidence that they worked and would be fun for the age group.

Some weeks there are multiple short experiments. There's no write up of the experiments - the children are giving up their lunchtime and we want to make it as fun as possible. But we do explain the science and ask lots of questions about what they children think will happen and what they remember.

The experiments include:

  • Balloon over a test tube with bicarb and lemon juice
  • Skittles in a petri dish of water
  • Pepper and liquid soap in a petri dish (surface tension)
  • Air pressure with syringes 
  • Chromatography with colour changing pens and kitchen towel circles
  • Jelly bath polymer and salt - liquid to solid to liquid
  • Red cabbage indicator testing of liquids and drawing with water on filter paper soaked in indicator
  • Static electricity with balloons plus a plasma ball (that we found in the science cupboard)
  • Fizzy drinks and mentos (which works best) outdoors!
  • Outdoor bug hunt with magnifying glasses

A few of the activities have a take home item such as kitchen towel chromatography, balloons are always popular! We also send a short slip of paper home with the children that explains the experiment so that they can discuss it with their parents.


  • You'll need to work with the school to do a risk assessment for the experiments you want to do. Don't be put off by this, it's common sense stuff. 
  • Regular volunteers will need a DBS check (either via the school or STEM Ambassadors.)
  • It's fine not to know everything! It's handy to have access to a computer to look things up, or you can come back with an answer next week. Most scientists and engineers are specialists, it's understandable if you've forgotten stuff!
  • Children aged 7-9 are a great target as they're are old enough to have the manual dexterity required for the experiments and young enough to be wowed. At our school science club is for year 3 and years 4, 5 and 6 have the option to attend an after school Code Club. 
  • Practice everything first and make a note of the amounts needed. Only one volunteer needs to do this for each experiment and if you keep notes you'll only need to do it the first year. 
  • Working in pairs is fine for some experiments, one child can hold the test tube while the other uses the pipette for example. 
  • It's fine just to run a science club for a half-term if that's all the volunteers can commit too. 
  • It's often best for a parent volunteer to come around with 'chemicals' rather than allowing a free for all!
  • Talk to the school science coordinator so you can avoid activities that they will be doing in lessons or fit in with them. 
  • Check out the school science cupboard and see what you can use, we found magnifying glasses and a plasma ball. 
  • Come up with a set of experiments that uses the same small set of equipment, this reduces cost and gives the children chance to become proficient (it turns out that it's not obvious how to use a pipette or a syringe for the first time.)
  • If you don't have a budget for equipment then you'll find lots of things you can use in a pound shop - plastic cups, shot glasses, spoons. They won't be as reusable but they will get you started. You can fund raise for better equipment later. We had a small budget from the school but didn't use it as we were happy to cover the costs and I already had much of the equipment from my son's birthday party. 
  • Yes, they will try and squirt water with syringes. Unless it's a very hot day and you're outside then you'll need to lay some ground rules. 

We get lots of reports of children wanting to do more science at home. Science club is a lot of fun and very rewarding.

The School Gate SET is focussing on encouraging parents (and others!) taking a break from an engineering or technology career to get involved in helping out with STEM subjects at their children's school. This sounds like a great idea. There's a huge amount of underused talent in that community.

If you're an engineering or technology parent on a career­ break, in Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire or Hertfordshire, then the School Gate SET has an initiative running to get you started.

Otherwise, why not find another parent with a tech or education background, or just lots of enthusiasm for science and see what you can get started.

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