Practical work: helping students enjoy science

Practical science

WRITTEN BY: HILARY LEEVERSWELLCOME TRUST

As a teenager with a growing passion for physics, seeing the trails of sub-atomic particles falling through a cloud chamber - that I’d actually helped to make in our classroom - was mind blowing. Likewise, dissecting a sheep’s eyeball helped me see the world in a different way. I hope that my own children will have such inspiring opportunities, but the odds aren’t good.

Just under half of today’s GCSE students say they do practical science less than once a month – according to new data from the Science Education Tracker, published by Wellcome in February 2017.

This lack of hands-on experience is absolutely unacceptable for a practical subject. I’m fairly sure we would not accept PE students learning from PowerPoint or art lessons based upon viewing not creating. What’s perhaps more shocking, is that those living in deprived areas do practical work less often.

Furthermore, over a fifth of students who do get to do practical work say that a lot of the time they just follow the instructions without understanding the purpose of the work. So there is a quality issue too.

Doing hands-on practical work encourages students to learn science and encourages most of them to want to do more. If you’re not doing it, you’re being short-changed. You are not learning the skills that you need to progress and you are not even getting to test out if that’s actually what you want to do. The chances are, you are finding science a little on the dull side and are unlikely to want to pursue rewarding science based careers.

We have workforce shortages in many areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) that are predicted to grow. The prime minister’s Brexit negotiation objectives emphasised the importance of making the UK “the best place for science innovation” and the recent Green Paper on industrial strategy underlined the need to “boost STEM skills at all levels”.

It’s exciting to imagine how many more students might be inspired to continue with science, and do so with stronger inquiry skills behind them, if they all did hands-on practical work at least fortnightly. Just under half of students say that they do this now, so it is surely possible.

To achieve this, schools will need to prioritise high-quality practical science and ensure that teachers have the resources and skills needed to deliver it. Policy-makers, governors and Ofsted need to make sure students have meaningful and inspiring practical experiences. And parents and students should feel empowered to ask for them. When it comes to teaching science, we need to get hands-on.

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