James McConnell – Head of Science

Fascination with the unknown is what drew James McConnell into Science, caught by everything from the smallest aspect of quantum physics to the greatness of astronomy.

He derives the same excitement from science fact as science fiction (although he remains a committed Trekkie), and acknowledges that this enthusiasm for his subject keeps his thinking young, as he shares his pupils’ keenness to discover and understand. Mr McConnell built a more formal scientific knowledge through his study of Biological Sciences at Warwick University, and then followed his desire to tell everyone else all about it by becoming a teacher. Hatherop is his third prep school as the science specialist and Head of Department, and he has also taught A’ Level, which serves him well in challenging his bright young pupils.

Right now, Mr McConnell is looking at food with Year 6, where the days of burning a peanut to understand energy are long gone. Now he lines up jelly babies and asks the children which one they wish to hear scream, dropping the chosen victim into potassium chlorate, which gives it the oxygen to burn. The key reaction occurs with a bright purple flame; a lingering jet of steam shoots out and, if you are lucky, the scream of the dying jelly baby pierces the air. ‘It is so much fun being a scientist!’ asserts the gleeful Mr McConnell.

Mr McConnell says he is still searching for new ways to transmit the joy and excitement of his subject, because there is just so much to get across. Being here at Hatherop, in the heart of the great outdoors, is a wonderful contrast to his previous Central London posting. It offers a wealth of bugs, dark skies (perfect for his proposed Astronomy Club), and so much space; space which gives him room for launching home-built rockets, for building seesaws to demonstrate moments of force, for running to understand pulse rates. Here in this environment, he says, the awe and wonder of his subject are enhanced. Science becomes more memorable, an adventure in learning which could a trigger a passion, or even a career. The opportunities are endless.

So, this is the everyday of Mr McConnell’s Science teaching. What is his vision?  Science capital makes perfect sense to him. He wants to build an experience of science in his pupils’ lives, which goes way past what is learned in lesson time, and recognises that science is in the very fabric of life. He hopes children will understand the relevance of science in what they see on television, encouraging discussions at home around sustainability or protecting endangered species. He plans to bring in inspirational practitioners, such as the heart surgeon parent, to get children out to the Science Museum, to encourage them to read anything to do with the subject, to take part in science competitions. 

For Mr McConnell, there are upsides to the move to Hatherop Castle beyond the scope it gives for his beloved Science. ‘My children, Oscar and Sadie, are here in Prep 4 and Reception respectively. My son never wants to come home and wants to stay with the boarders. He just loves it and has taken up fencing. Enough said!