Art of Teaching Science; Education Notebook

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Byline: SUSAN ELKIN

LOOKING around for suitable activities for her sixth-form A-level physics, chemistry and biology students at Ellen Wilkinson School in West London, science teacher Helen McGrevey might have chosen the Science Museum.

She wanted them to learn more about the practical applications of science - but she chose the National Gallery. There the pupils have been learning about, and experimenting with, infrared reflectography, which was originally developed for the aircraft industry.

Infrared shows with great precision the drawings which, for example, Raphael, Giorgione and Breughel sketched before they covered their canvases with paint. It's much more userfriendly than the time-honoured X-ray, and the results are clearer on the 'underdrawing', too.

Every painting is a chemistry lesson with physics thrown in. How were pigments made? How do they react when they're dry and as they age? Why does silver oxidise and go black? Why can infrared light penetrate paint but is blocked by carbon?

'I've learned about the process involved in producing these Renaissance paintings,' said Jenny McKinney, 16, during a session at the National Gallery. 'I hadn't realised their materials were organic and everything was prepared on the spot, which made everything so slow and labour-intensive.'

Vaidehee Danidharia, 16, who wants to be a doctor, added: 'This work is a practical application of science, and it's a refreshing change from lab work.' Don't imagine science is new at the National Gallery. Its science department is the world's oldest to be based in a museum or gallery.

'It began in the 1850s,' explained head of education Kathy Adler. 'They were worrying about the effects of pollution and established the department to deal with it.' She says students are taught that before the 19th century every artist was also a scientist. 'They understood the chemical properties of the materials,' she adds.

'It's different for modern artists who buy readymade paints. Some 19th-century artists made mistakes because he didn't have the scientific knowledge.' Ellen Wilkinson was launched last September and is one of very few all-girls schools to be funded for specialism in science. …