02 April 2020

John Lyon seems to have been ahead of the curve with Science education

John Lyon’s new Head of Science, Mr Alex Kyles-Brown delves into the archives to see how Science education has been, and remains, important to School life.

On joining John Lyon as Head of Science this year, one of the first things that struck me was how important Science education is here and incredibly well-equipped the whole Science Department is.

Eight bright and spacious labs, large prep rooms, and practical equipment to demonstrate everything from a solar eclipse (one of the labs can be turned into a camera obscura) to the collisions of individual molecules due to Brownian motion.

The equipment we have as a department varies in age considerably – some brand new, some almost antique. This to me demonstrates the School’s continuous and long-term investment in Science education over its history.

The definitive account of the School – John Lyon’s Dream by the late Michael Burrell (OL1956) – was helpful to me in establishing the origins of Science teaching at the school. The history of Science education in the UK, and particularly in independent schools, is worth a brief review at this point. In the present day, Science is seen as one of the ‘core’ subjects in most schools. This was not always the case. Most independent schools in the late nineteenth century did not place a significant emphasis on science, preferring to educate boys in classics, moral character, tradition etc. Indeed, at several schools the sciences were considered dirty or beneath a gentleman, sometimes being referred to as ‘stinks’!

John Lyon seems to have been ahead of the curve with Science education. The Lyonian magazine was founded by Ernest Young in 1890 – a Science Master whose ethos for the magazine was academically inclusive: “Its pages will be open for all matters of interest which any Lyon boy may care to discuss.

Young left in 1891, having achieved remarkable results with the boys in Chemistry, and establishing the School as a place where Science would be central to the curriculum for the next century and beyond. As many will know, he returned to the School as Headmaster in 1898. It was under his Headship that the Scientific Society was founded.

The scientifically-literate Heads continued, with perhaps most notably Oscar Le Beau, Head from 1926-1951. Le Beau was a fellow of the British Astronomical Society. He taught all the sciences, lectured on his many travels, and studied ‘Classical Persian’ in his presumably limited spare time! Le Beau also oversaw the building – in 1930 – of some of the School’s current science labs, off what is now the Mall but what used to be an outdoor space.

Despite long tradition, many aspects of Science education would be unrecognisable to former Masters or Old Lyonians. The interactive whiteboards would be familiar to recent leavers, but the omnipresence of Microsoft Surface Books and shared OneNotes, with teachers’ slides and boys’ notes magically syncing in the cloud would be new.

The datalogging equipment we regularly use would be unfamiliarly slick – as boys take experiments their results automatically plot themselves onto graphs, and we emphasise computer modelling as part of our GCSE and A-Level courses.

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) would be an idea totally alien to many former members of the John Lyon community, but I am sure Le Beau or Young would have loved it: the ultimate cross-curricular subject, setting boys challenges by stretching their artistic as well as scientific imaginations.

Our work in Science at John Lyon is nowhere near finished. In addition to an upcoming new STEAM lab, there is a Robotics Club, a brand-new Astronomy Society with links to Harrow School, and more trips than ever to exciting locations, such as CERN and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

I wanted to end by asking two lifelong Lyonians in the Sixth Form to write a little bit about what Science at John Lyon has meant to them.

Yuvraj Dhunna, Upper Sixth: “Having been at John Lyon for six years, I have found all aspects of the Science departments to be very fulfilling. The Biology, Chemistry and Physics departments are extensive in resources and use these in lessons in an engaging manner. Lots of focus is placed on practicals across the sciences; for example, dissection of sheep hearts in Biology, deducing the chemical composition of unknown compounds in Chemistry and safely investigating high voltages using the Van de Graaff generator in Physics. John Lyon also offers a wide range of scientific activities such as VEX Robotics, CREST Award and various engineering clubs. I’ve personally been a part of VEX Robotics, building robots for inter-school competitions and for fun. Not only has it allowed me to expand my programming and mechanical thinking skills, it has also enabled me to work as part of a larger team. Another example was the recent Design the Mall competition, which involved a mixture of architecture and structural engineering. There are many trips to various public lectures outside of school for all years organised by heads of department that extend students beyond the syllabus. There is a lot of support available for students outside of lessons as well.”

Ethan Miller, Lower Sixth: “Studying Science at John Lyon has been really rewarding for me from when I first came to this school. Although the three curricular sciences have been great in establishing a solid base for my knowledge, I feel I’ve thrived most in all the extra-curricular activities and lectures dotted around the School. One of my favourites that I’m taking part in is the CREST Award. The range of topics and the resources that the school offers have really let me take my science education in a direction that I enjoy.
I’m currently in my first year of Sixth Form and can already see that this year will be harder than any previous year. Despite this, all the teachers have done their best to make sure each of the practicals are both interesting and informative, making sure that no-one is left in the dark in understanding each point made. It can be pressuring at times – the workload doesn’t get any lighter no matter how you spin it, but everything has presented in digestible chunks. Overall, I’m confident in vouching for the Science Department – they’ve helped me realise my potential, but more importantly they helped me find the enjoyment.”