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Practical work during COVID-19 and beyond: Part 1

Published: Jan 15, 2021 4 min read

STEM learning

We asked our secondary science online community how they are engaging their students with practical work in the context of remote learning. 

Several teachers said they are taking on board the ASE recommendations and trying to find more opportunities for open-ended investigations, fieldwork and in particular citizen science activities.

With the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch 2021 coming up on the 29-31 January there is a great opportunity to get students (and their families) actively involved in real-life science and to link to the nutrition and digestion or biodiversity and evolution in the curriculum. 

Although the science curriculum focuses on human nutrition CLEAPSS ‘Which bird food mixtures are best for hungry birds?’ is a practical activity that students could try at home.

Teachers could encourage students to apply knowledge of nutrition in humans to this context and check understanding. Parental supervision may be required for the activity, depending on the age of your students, and I would perhaps suggest using a rolling pin or can of beans as well as a chopping board, or similar, rather than a hammer and newspaper to crush the bird food. 

The activity looks at: fat content, which could lead into a teacher demonstration of food tests on a variety of bird foods, comparison of nutritional requirements of humans and birds, as well as how birds’ nutritional needs might change during the year. High-fat content in winter helps meet high cellular respiration needs, including heat from cellular respiration for keeping warm, compared to a greater need for protein from foods such as mealworms in the breeding season.  

The CLEAPSS activity is one of those imperfect practicals that can stimulate great discussions about what makes an accurate method, improving experimental design and therefore developing evaluative and analytical skills.

To link to curriculum ideas about biodiversity and evolution pose the questions ‘Do humans putting out bird food affect wild bird communities?’ ‘Do bird feeders give some species or individuals of a species an advantage and a better chance of surviving and breeding?’ ‘Is feeding birds in your garden a good thing?’  

In the UK, where feeding garden birds is a popular hobby, great tits who happen to have longer beaks have a selective advantage. They can reach the food inside bird feeders more easily and are therefore more likely to survive and breed. According to this article about research from the University of Oxford British great tits, on average, have longer beaks than those from mainland Europe where bird feeders in gardens are less popular, an example of natural selection in action. 

Also, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) research shows that feeding birds in your garden can change the species making up our garden bird communities, with numbers of some species increasing and others decreasing. For more natural selection and evolution resources for Key Stage 3 see STEM Learning’s resource packages.

It would be great to hear about how you have used citizen science and open-ended investigations with your students, including how you linked them to the curriculum so please join the conversation about this in our online community of practice.

Here are a few more links to citizen science opportunities and resources to get you started, not an exhaustive list there are loads out there: 

If you wish to develop your practical science skills further you can join us on our intensive CPD courses below: