Years ago, I used to set a “model atom” project. In line with a school priority about developing independence, and my own beliefs about engaging students in science outside the classroom, I set the project with gusto. I carefully prepared level ladders and checklists to make sure students were including the information I wanted and were properly researching their atom of choice.

When due date came along, my lab had never seen so much activity before 8.30am. Beaming students, bedecked with enormous models, came in and out to lay their precious cargo on the sides, wary of damaging them in their lockers or on the playground. I stole a quick look and was mighty impressed. It was clear a lot of work had gone into them. Some students used polystyrene, others used balloons, one had built one from wood and had it hanging from a hand made stand.

During the lesson, I allowed students to wander around the lab looking at each other’s work. I was very careful to spend time talking to each student about their model and to be generous handing out achievement points.

Across both my classes, only one student hadn’t brought it in. Dan was one of those students who rarely has equipment, often forgets his book and always looked a bit…well, let’s be honest…grubby.

I asked Dan if he had done his model atom and he told me, shifting from foot to foot and looking at the floor, that it was at home. Ok, Dan, that’s fine – could I please see it tomorrow? Yes, sir, looking down. Great, I’m looking forward.

Tomorrow comes along – no Dan to see me. The day after we had another science lesson – Dan? Where is your atom. Oh sir sorry sir, it’s at home. Ok. Please can I see it tomorrow? Yes, sir. Great.

In our next lesson, I can see that Dan has not brought his atom. Whilst the class are quietly working I go over to him for a whispered conversation. Dan? Have you brought your atom today? Expecting a no, I was surprised to hear a yes. Still looking down, he quickly turned to his left and right to check that his neighbours were focussed on their work and not him. He held out an ink-stained and dirty fist, and opened it to reveal three small balls of plasticine. One red, two blue, stuck together. For the first time since the whole affair started he showed me his eyes. Still with his head facing the floor he looked up at me through his brows, a mixture of sorrow, shame and hopefulness in his eyes.

I’ll never set a project again.