STEM: The vital role of the technician

Written by: Joanne Vass-Gavin | Published:
Expertise: Joanne Vass-Gavin, senior science technician at The Magna Carta School, features in a case study about the importance of good technician support

What does good technical support look like in a science department? Joanne Vass-Gavin explains

Some schools may believe that delivering good technical support to the science department is purely ancillary: technicians ensure teachers have all the equipment that they need, know exactly what they’re going to do with it, and feel confident that they know the experiment they’re going to carry out is going to work. But at The Magna Carta School our support goes further than that.

Technicians can transform science departments. They not only curate equipment and prepare experiments on a day-to-day basis, they also work with teachers to develop new practical activities, and they are often experts in health and safety. We are often the glue that holds the whole department together.

In my experience, teachers frequently seek advice on practicals, asking for different ideas and new experiments that they could possibly carry out and then work with us to find out how they can to do that.

When I found out about the Gatsby Foundation’s Good Practical Science report (September 2017) and that technical support was a key benchmark for helping schools deliver world-class science practicals, it made me reflect on my own practice.

If good technical support underpins all of the 10 benchmarks in the report, then improving the role of the science technician to help raise the overall quality of science practicals in UK schools can only be a good thing. Watch the film about our school’s approach (see further information), or read on for my tips about how to deliver good technical support so that you can to carry out effective science practicals in your school.

Professional development

I believe it is really important that all technicians take professional development courses and learn as much as they can about what they are doing. This makes them feel confident about the knowledge that they have secured to advise other teachers and encourages them to look at new ways of delivering science in the department.

I found a programme of courses run by CLEAPSS (the advisory service providing support in science and technology in schools and colleges across England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and enrolled via the school.

I learned so much during my 12 weeks and my confidence level grew immensely. I was able to bring back fresh ideas to the school to enhance the way that we were delivering technical support and helping the science department.

When trained correctly, technicians should be freeing up teachers’ time for lesson-planning and preparation, helping develop less experienced teachers’ confidence with apparatus and techniques and improving lab and equipment use.

Good organisation and planning

One of the key skills technicians have is excellent organisation. In a school environment where multiple lessons are going on throughout the week, we need to ensure experiments are prepped at least 48 hours in advance to ensure that items are ready in case a member of staff is absent. A typical day starts by checking emails to ensure there are no late lesson changes and then we begin putting out experiments for the first period. When teachers are happy that the lesson can proceed, we continue in this way, clearing a lesson and putting new equipment out for the next and tidying as we go.

Our breaks are used to talk to teachers to ensure communication is on-going, working relationships are optimal and plans are made for future work.

Communication

Communication between teachers and technicians is such an important part of making sure that science practicals run smoothly. My relationship with the teachers at the school has improved a lot over the last four years, and that is mostly due to an increase in communication.

I would advise any other technician who wants to be more involved in their science department to really use their communication skills. Talk to your head of science. Talk to your senior leadership team and get them to understand how important your role can be and what you can really offer to the science department, because being a technician is more than just delivering a tray and collecting it again at the end of the lesson.

Often, particularly when there are new teachers, I find that discussing what sorts of experiments they want to carry out and how they will deliver them can make all the difference to their confidence and how well the practical goes.

Getting support from above

Crucially, my headteacher Kathy Janzan has given us her full support to help us develop and flourish. With her encouragement and willingness to take on board all the technicians’ views, the school has been able to improve its science lesson delivery.

Kathy’s view is that it is really important that the development of the science technicians is supported in school. She knows that if you don’t take on board the views of the science technicians in terms of how practicals should be run and the development of new types of practicals, then you are doing a disservice to the science department. She knows that it is not possible for teachers to do the type of work that technicians do and deliver lessons because there just isn’t the time in the day. That’s why our technician team is able to ensure the school delivers top-class science lessons.

  • Joanne Vass-Gavin is the senior science technician at The Magna Carta School in Surrey.

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