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The trouble with practical science

Published: May 21, 2015 7 min read

Yvonne Baker

You may – or may not – have noticed a bit of a furore developing recently around practical science, or more specifically the assessment of it. For A level in England, Ofqual have announced that assessment of practical science will no longer be included in the final grading, with a separate pass/fail for defined practical techniques reported alongside.

Unsurprisingly, this has excited a range of science based organisations including the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society, SCORE (Science Community Representing Education) and the CBI, all of whom have criticised the proposals, calling it a ‘backward step’ which will damage British science. On the other side of the debate, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, for example, says that current qualifications often do not provide the type of training and skills which employers need. A point which Ofqual says is part of their thinking in removing the shackles of practical assessment, resulting, they claim, in ‘more and better science practical work being carried out’. Most interestingly, a possibly surprising number of teachers and technicians also find themselves in agreement with Ofqual, citing formulaic, ‘correct answer’ practicals, which are not reflective of ‘real science’, as a reason for change.

Science is essentially a practical discipline

So what does this all mean? Science is, after all, essentially a practical discipline, as suggested by the phrase ‘practising scientists and engineers’ – so can we really teach, or prepare young people for potential careers using science effectively without assessing those skills? Conversely, when many scientific discoveries and innovations are actually a result of practical experiments or trials ‘going wrong’ (think of the story behind the ‘post-it’ note for example), are we giving young people the wrong impression of, and risk dampening their enthusiasm for, science if practicals themselves – and particularly assessment of those practicals – are seen to be ‘go/no go’ activities where young people need to get the answer ‘right’?

Practical science is important

To be clear, nobody – least of all Ofqual – is suggesting that practical science is not important. Ofqual and others believe that reducing the burden of assessment means that teachers and schools will have the freedom to teach a wide range of practical skills in more creative and innovative ways, encouraging the ‘free thinking’ upon which science depends. Practical work also helps young people develop resilience, independence, resourcefulness, team work, communication, evaluation and risk assessment – all key employability skills. As Isaac Asimov said – and we have on the wall of the National Science Learning Centre – “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…”. At the same time, in order to achieve all this, young people clearly need to be taught a good understanding – and practical experience – of a range of scientific techniques and methods, which enable them to approach projects and scientific investigations in a productive way.

So what to do? Well, I’m not about to wade into the murky waters of debating assessment here – plenty of my colleagues are better qualified to do this than me, and the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recently held a session to do just that. No doubt the debate will continue; in the meantime, we need to work together as a community to ensure that those teaching science and other STEM subjects have access to sufficient high quality support, activities and ideas to provide every young person with appropriate and varied opportunities in practical science. This is precisely what Project ENTHUSE – supported by the Wellcome Trust, Department for Education, BAE Systems, BP, Rolls-Royce, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and others – does through the National Science Learning Centre, along with the wider network of Science Learning Partnerships across England and our partners in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Experiential professional development

Far from being ‘just courses’, our professional development work with teachers – and school and college technicians – is experiential, with a huge focus on participants’ own practical involvement as well as ensuring they can develop practical skills in young people in safe, engaging and, importantly, affordable, ways. Excellent practical facilities at the National Centre at York are coupled with local facilities and support through the 50 local Science Learning Partnerships, led by and working through outstanding schools and colleges, committed to and experienced in practical science. A coherent programme of support and professional development opportunities – with practical science embedded throughout – provides all those teaching and involved in science and other STEM subjects with pathways to develop confidence and ideas, and take these back into their classroom.

In addition, the National STEM Centre eLibrary contains a wealth of practical science and wider STEM resources among its quality assured 8,500 items – a search for ‘practical science’ returns more than 3,500 results, with the ability to focus using criteria including age group and subject. Our subject specialists have also pulled together a range of collections to help make it easier for teachers and others to find what is most relevant to and useful for them. This includes a range of excellent videos. The Centre is also planning new on-line demo support, including video tutorials, webinars and discussion groups, which will be launched soon.

As Mat Galvin, a teacher at Birley Learning Community in Sheffield puts it

“Practical work should not be about getting the ‘right result’ but about developing true investigative skills. Through excellent, tailored National Science Learning Centre support, our team was able to think in more depth about the basic point of practical work in science lessons, and practical sessions were redesigned to be open-ended investigations rather than recipe following ‘plods’. With this new found focus, through a mixture of self-designed projects and National STEM Centre e-library resources, coursework marks have risen dramatically, students are regularly commenting that they enjoy the practical work more and even our local MP was impressed with the outcome of our catapult design competition!"

Wendy Thorburn RSci, a science technician at Kingdown School who has also worked with the National Science Learning Centre, adds;

“Students should have access to practicals as much as possible. Had it not been for the support of the Science Learning Centre and the resources you provide, myself and colleagues would not have been able to introduce the many new ideas that we have. This keeps things fresh, and not only us but also the teachers, and most importantly the students, interested and enthused.”

Across the UK, we have made significant progress in encouraging more young people to pursue STEM subjects over recent years, although more remains to be done. We believe that providing inspiring practical science for all pupils is crucial if we are to sustain and develop this progress, and this means convincing school and college leadership and governors, alongside policymakers, to give practical science the emphasis it deserves.

Teachers and technicians tell us that, when practical science is taught well, one of the most common phrases heard from young people is “I wish I could do this more often”. Similarly, most people working in STEM-related jobs will tell you that it is the practical nature of science which makes what they do special. Teaching science without good practical work is like teaching art without drawing – surely you wouldn’t do it? The fundamental issue therefore is – regardless of assessment – how do we ensure all young people get the varied, exciting and accurate practical experience of science that they need? That is precisely what we and many others will continue working to achieve.