Practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Annex: summary of the main points from the e-consultation


Background

We wanted to hear views from students at school. Rather than through formal evidence sessions we gathered views from an e-consultation exercise. This had the advantage that we could hear from much wider ranges of students than could be heard at an oral evidence session and it filled a gap in the written material evidence as we received no written submission from students at school. The Student Room[161] (TSR) was identified as an appropriate external partner.

The TSR site is open to people at any stage of education, although the majority of its users fall within the 14 to 24 years age range. TSR has in the past worked with a number of government departments on student online engagement projects. TSR has also recently undertaken some collaborative work with the House of Commons Education Committee to gather contributions for its inquiry into youth services.[162]

Details

The e-consultation started with three subjects or "threads" launched on the website on 7 June.[163] Each thread focused on one aspect of practical science in schools with the headline questions below used as starting points:

a)  What motivated you to study science at GCSE or A-level?

b)  In your experience, how often do/did your science lessons involve practical experiments or field trips?

c)  What value do you think practicals bring to your science education?

The exercise ended on 8 July, by which time 179 contributors to the consultation had posted 277 entries across the three topics or "conversation threads". By 18 July, contributions to the discussion had been viewed 6,588 times, which—at just under 24 views per post—indicates a much larger audience than the contributions would suggest.

There were 24 contributors that posted three times or more. The thread that attracted most interest was the question on motivation (125 of the 277 posts were on this topic).

Conversation Threads

MOTIVATION TO STUDY SCIENCE (QUESTION 1)

Of 95 contributors discussing motivation to study science just under half (44, that is 46%) indicated that it might to some degree be related to the opportunity to carry out practicals or go on field trips.

There were few contributors that indicated that the motivation to study science came to a large measure from practicals they had carried out or of those they hoped to do.

There was frequent reference to the need to study the subjects that related to future jobs or university courses. This was a by far the most common response in the thread. Indeed some of the contributors suggested that the courses were made worse by the practical elements and that the teachers should have dropped them and focussed instead on matters that would improve grades. One student wrote:

I begged my teachers to stop doing practicals and teach on the syllabus. I wish they would stop trying to make it fun and just teach it because in the end all that matters is my grade. My grade depends upon my exams. My exams depend upon the syllabus. Anything else in my opinion is a complete waste of everyone's time.

Where students discussed inspiration it was often attributed to an inspiring teacher or a science event. One contributor explained what she thought would motivate people to choose science:

there should be greater opportunities for interested students to do taster sessions in more 'exciting' areas of science. It's obviously very important for people to get a good grounding in the basics, or they'll never be prepared for higher studies, but the problem is that the things that sound really flash and tell you a lot about the nature of the universe—astrophysics, for example—aren't really introduced in any depth until GCSE/a-level, by which point you've lost a lot of students. As well as skills like writing down chemical formulae or whatever, I think you also need to show people what greater meaning scientific ideas can have, and how they can describe big things that people are often interested in.

There were also some comments about the courses arranged by the wider science community but many commented on how inaccessible they were rather than how good:

I think that schemes such as the Nuffield Bursary should be more highly advertised in schools as well. I only found out about it the other week, and by then it was too late for me to apply;

and one who commented on content as well as access:

I realise that schemes like this exist (I did a silver CREST award at the end of Y8, and I really enjoyed it) but they don't seem to be widely publicised or put into place, at least in my experience.

FREQUENCY OF PRACTICALS (QUESTION 2)

There was a range of experiences among contributors. From regular science practical classes to hardly any experience of practicals, with the bulk of experience tending towards latter end of the spectrum. There were two patterns among responses. One was that the number of practicals appeared to decrease as students progressed through the school, for example:

At KS3 we were doing practicals at least 1 once a week and we had 3 lessons per week. At GCSE we were promised at least 1 practical per week out of our 5 lessons. We are lucky to get 1 practical a month to be honest. It has made science for me really boring.

Alternatively, it was recorded that the practicals carried out were only those absolutely necessary "once this year—for the [Internal Assessment Activities] in all three topics".

In addition, there appeared to be a variation across the subjects. Biology was often quoted as the least likely science subject to provide practicals, physics being better and chemistry being the most likely to have practicals in class.

The second pattern was the almost complete absence of science field trip experiences among respondents. There were one or two respondents who cited a trip to an observatory and one to CERN but the vast majority told us there was a complete lack of field trips from within the science courses they experienced.

VALUE OF PRACTICALS (QUESTION 3)

When discussing the value of field trips and practicals 42 of the 59 (71%) contributors considered that practicals and field trips were of value. On the question of value contributors spoke of practicals as showing how theory worked in practice and did not appear to value them as deliverers of practical skills. Contributors were more inclined to explain the pedagogical use of practicals, for example:

Practical experiments give meaning to theory. I'm not saying that all theory should be demonstrated and worked at hands on, but as someone mentioned before the use of videos is a good way of showing the outcome and elaborating on the theory, not old video tape cheesy science videos, but more modern real world videos, such as those on youtube. Science isn't purely about knowledge, it's about "what do I know, and How can I use it", and practical work can play a big part of that.

None of the contributors said that practical classes needed to deliver practical skills that would be of use in possible future careers. The one response that did mention the use of practical skills was more focussed on university than any future employment:

The only use [practical classes] have is [to] develop practical skills for university science courses such as chemistry where you get proper lab time.

The contributors focussed mainly about how the practicals might improve their understanding of the theoretical knowledge of the subject; most did not mention that they might develop laboratory skills that would be of practical use in later life.


161   The Student Room, www.thestudentroom.co.uk. TSR is a large online student community with more than 500,000 registered members, 2.8 million unique users per month and more than 16 million posts across 280+ forums. The site itself is a provider of peer support services to students with young people visiting to get homework help, inform education choices and get social and emotional support. Back

162   www.thestudentroom.co.uk/youthservices Back

163   www.thestudentroom.co.uk/practicalscience
All the quotes in this annex are taken from the three conversation threads associated with this page. Back


 
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Prepared 14 September 2011