Our invaluable science technicians

Written by: Fran Dainty | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Supporting and celebrating our science technician colleagues is important. Fran Dainty from the National STEM Learning Network takes a moment to reflect on their vital work

How often do we celebrate the work done by technicians in schools and colleges up and down the UK?

Perhaps not often enough. When I reflect back on my own teaching experience, I can’t tell you the number of times a technician has come to the rescue with an idea for a practical, or prepared equipment just in the nick of time. So for this article, I thought I would ask some of my colleagues at the National STEM Learning Network how technicians have helped them.

Technicians often have a really significant role in providing training and support to teachers and understand just how important it is that students have access to effective practical work.

Jessica Mytum-Smithson, a teacher who now works alongside me as a professional development lead, told me just how essential her technician was when she was an NQT.

She explained: “In my NQT year, due to the size of the school, I taught 50 per cent of the students in the school with only two other part-time science teachers. It was great to have someone to discuss practical ideas with, the demonstrations and practicals she suggested during this time saved me time and helped me build my knowledge.

“I’m quite a squeamish teacher and it took me quite a while to become brave enough to carry out dissections confidently. We do not have an electric pump to inflate lungs during dissections so my technician comes and does it for me – without this the students wouldn’t get the opportunity to see them inflated.

“In the three years we’ve worked together she has demonstrated experiments to me when I wasn’t sure what to do – all her knowledge is gained from looking after teachers for many years. She has rescued me when equipment didn’t quite work, helped me film experiments to demonstrate the methods, and also prepared or sourced the most ridiculous things for some of my experiments.

“Alongside all the official roles our technician has, the unofficial ones are the ones we are possibly most grateful for: seeing to our wellbeing, organising staff ‘fuddles’ (food muddles – or a shared meal), and making sure everyone is okay. I think that the unofficial job description would be too lengthy to list.”

If you are teaching outside of your specialism, technicians can be especially helpful. Simon Quinnell, national technician lead at the National STEM Learning Network, told me: “As a technician and a teacher I’ve seen (and been on) both sides and know how invaluable technicians are in supporting teachers and students.

“As a technician my first taste of being in front of a class was supporting non-specialists performing demonstrations. This included helping our NQT biologist with the vacuum pump and Van der Graaf and our physicists and chemists with dissections, as I had the skills and knowledge and they had the teaching expertise.

“This happened because the department valued technician input and made good use of the resources and skills we had. The teachers encouraged technicians to get involved in lessons and they valued the support.”

And technicians are not just there to “prep the work”, often they have valuable input to make into lesson ideas and strategies and the different types of practical experiment that teachers might employ in class.

Mr Quinnell continued: “As a teacher the technician teams I’ve worked with have always enabled me to do practical work in so many different ways that helps to support learners of all types.

“Technicians are also not just about the prepping up of practical work. Technicians that are well trained, valued and have the time to be there can support teachers with training on practical techniques, equipment, health and safety advice, and can trial and research practicals to make sure they are as effective as they can be for students.

“If I have a practical that I want to get working for a course, I will always work with the technician team as they have the expertise and experience to make it happen.”

So how can we support our technician colleagues? I think it comes down to respecting the role. Technicians are often the glue that hold science departments together: ensuring continuity of knowledge through the department, and shepherding nervous NQTs through their first year.

As a head of department myself, I always tried to ensure that all my staff – technicians included – had access to regular training and professional development opportunities.

Helen Rose, the technician professional development leader at the National STEM Learning Centre in York, shares with me regular stories of technicians who have taken part in professional development with us at the centre and have grown in confidence as a result.

She said: “One technician who really stands out in the memory was Jayne. She attended some CPD a few years ago. Jayne has blossomed into an awesome science technician who at the beginning was in basic training and is now a senior technician who sends her new technicians onto our courses.”

Another key thing we can do to support technicians is to make sure they are celebrated. This could be as simple as sharing with them how much a class loved a practical they helped to design or empowering them to take on new projects and responsibilities.

There are lots of awards and recognition schemes out there, too – why not nominate an amazing technician you know? The National STEM Learning Network runs two such awards – the ENTHUSE Celebration Awards and the STEM Educators recognition scheme. Both of these are free to enter, and have categories designed to highlight the work of technicians.

The benefits for ensuring technicians are supported are manifold – technicians not only support all their teacher colleagues in their department, they also share vital knowledge and ideas for practical work.

Technicians who are given the confidence and opportunity to take more of a lead in their departments have gone on to do fantastic things – from becoming STEM coordinators in their schools to starting STEM Clubs, some are even leading training sessions, not only for their colleagues but for teachers and technicians across their local area and nationally.

  • Fran Dainty is science CPD lead with the National STEM Learning Network.

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