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

Written evidence submitted by the British Science Association (Sch Sci 05)


1.  The British Science Association is a registered charity that exists to advance the public understanding, accessibility and accountability of the sciences and engineering in the UK.

We seek to achieve that by connecting science with people: promoting openness about science in society and affirming science as a prime cultural force through engaging and inspiring adults and young people directly with science and technology, and their implications.

Established in 1831, the British Science Association organises major initiatives across the UK, including the annual British Science Festival, National Science and Engineering Week, programmes of regional and local events, and an extensive programme for young people in schools and colleges.

The British Science Association is established under Royal Charter and governed by a Council which forms the Board of Trustees. It is registered with the Charity Commission (number 212479) and with the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (number SCO39236).

How important are practical experiments and field trips in science education?

2.  The benefits of practical work are well documented and were summarised in the SCORE (2008) report[6] which stated "practical work promotes the engagement and interest of pupils as well as developing a range of skills, science knowledge and conceptual understanding".

3.  The OECD-wide PISA studies provide compelling evidence of the value of practically-based activities.[7] They show that involvement by students in enrichment activities such as science fairs, competitions and visits is one of only three "educational resource factors" correlated with increased performance in science after allowing for socio-economic background.

4.  Practical activities and field trips offer particular opportunities for young people to develop creativity. Creative activities, according to the report of the National Advisory Commission for Creative and Cultural Education (the Robinson report),[8] have four characteristics (which are used by Ofsted inspectors to report on creativity in schools), namely: being imaginative and purposeful, and developing something original and of value in relation to the purposeful objective. That implies the need for contexts that offer opportunities for exploration, for taking risks and making mistakes, provide exciting or unusual stimuli, sharing and reflecting openly on ideas, respecting difference and offering choice and control to students.

5.  We believe strongly that young people should experience science and technology by engaging in exploratory and open-ended scientific and technological activities themselves. Project work allows students to gain experience of some of the technical skills associated with doing science as well as benefiting from team working and problem solving.

6.  Our CREST Awards scheme was externally evaluated recently by Liverpool University[9]. The findings from the impact study showed that:

—  CREST has a strong positive impact on its primary target audience.

—  Students gained knowledge and developed transferable skills.

—  Students' attitudes towards STEM and aspirations for STEM careers were improved.

—  A large number of teachers commented that CREST enthuses and motivates students and many commented on the skills and confidence that students develop.

—  Many teachers felt that the scheme helped inform their teaching and gives students a broader experience of STEM than school alone can offer.

—  Teachers felt that CREST raised the profile of STEM in the school.

—  Mentors highlighted the impact on students' decision-making at Gold level, and described the impact on young people's subject choices at university.

7.  The British Science Festival (organised by the British Science Association) also provides inspirational hands-on practical experiences for young people outside the classroom, reinforcing our organisation's dedication to these principles.

8.  The Association manages the National Science and Engineering Competition and is a major partner and instigator of the Big Bang (UK Young Scientists' and Engineers' Fair).

Are practical experiments in science lessons and science field trips in decline? If they are, what are the reasons for the decline?

9.  The British Science Association is particularly interested in the level of opportunities for project-based practical work in schools and colleges. We believe this is in decline despite on-going curriculum developments encouraging this approach. Based on ad hoc feedback, possible reasons contributing to a potential decline include:

—  Discrete STEM experiences are easier to implement initially whereas project-based approaches may be more time consuming and problematic.

—  Investigative project work is used mainly for assessment purposes (as shown by Millar and Abrahams (2009),[10] who observed 25 practical situations in schools as part of their study, none of which came under the category of supporting the processes of scientific enquiry).

—  Teachers sometimes feel that the benefits of project work regarding attainment are not proven or not always recognised.

—  Teachers have prioritised implementing new curriculum changes and have not yet had the time to incorporate project-based approaches that effectively support these changes.

—  Teachers may be less motivated to implement project-based practical experiments since they feel it can be difficult to find experiments that are both exciting and achievable, as reported in an independent evaluation of the CREST Awards carried out by Grant (2006).[11]

—  Today's teachers have developed through a structured curriculum and are not as experienced in implementing project-based approaches.

10.  Reports such as NESTA's Real Science[12] have investigated the status of science enquiry in UK schools, but given this was produced in 2005 and that educational policy now further encourages schools to offer project-based and cross-curricula approaches to practical work, it's crucial that we find out whether genuine experimentation by pupils is actually getting less common, not more, in schools and colleges.

Do examination boards adequately recognise practical experiments and trips?

11.  As an organisation focusing primarily on informal learning opportunities we are not best placed to comment on this in detail. However, we do recognise the difficulties in employing fair models that uniformly assess practical work as part of exams. A variety of techniques have been used by examining bodies (eg ISAs, IAA tasks) but anecdotal comments from teachers suggest that some may look for the easiest way for students to safely score the best marks (rather than choosing the assessment approach that may provide the best opportunities for students to develop a broad range of practical skills) given the emphasis on league tables and results. We are very interested in the development of new qualifications recognising the importance and value of longer term project work (which is often practically based) such as the Extended Project Qualification, which echoes the ethos of CREST and the principles of the British Science Association.

If the quality or number of practical experiments and field trips is declining, what are the consequences for science education and career choices? For example, what effects are there on the performance and achievement of pupils and students in Higher Education?

12.  Our own small scale research with admissions tutors in HE has suggested that students often arrive at the start of their course without the skills set to persevere and problem solve in longer term project-based work. This could directly relate to the lack of opportunities for such practically-based project work that students undertake in schools/colleges and this reinforces our belief in the value of the CREST Awards.

13.  Generally there is a low awareness of the breadth of careers that may result from science/maths routes. Similarly there is a low awareness of the rewards and opportunities that may be available through STEM careers.

14.  High quality enhancement and enrichment is very important to improve engagement with role models and scientists helping to remove stereotypes and playing a key part in enthusing young people. Learning does not just take place in lesson time and young people can benefit from having a wide range of learning experiences in different environments outside of the classroom and through field trips. These principles are firmly supported through the CREST Awards scheme.

What changes should be made?

15.  A radical change is not required since it feels as though teachers (and students) have had to deal with an ever-changing curriculum. We would suggest there should be more of a change of emphasis, to be gradually implemented which will take time if it is to be effective.

16.  New curriculum developments should not just focus on "what" is included, but more of a consideration should be given to "how", providing space for creativity and the development of broader skills. However, if teachers are to be encouraged to broaden their approaches through a more open curriculum then it needs to be recognised that appropriate support will be required and it will take time (and resources) to effectively implement any change of emphasis in a new curriculum.

17.  There is a wide range of organisations that are well-placed to help teachers provide their students with opportunities to do practical work and take part in field trips and visits. These organisations range from national bodies like the British Science Association, the Association for Science Education, the various professional bodies and STEMNET through to small local organisations that work with a small number of schools more intensively. These organisations are facing considerable turbulence at the moment as a result of reductions or disruptions in their funding streams. While this may be an inevitable consequence of the Government's current spending priorities, we need to ensure we don't inadvertently lose a swathe of experienced activity providers who can help to safeguard the future health of the UK's R&D base.

One of the key themes that emerged from the most recent meeting of our CREST Quality Assurance Group was that primary schools continue to request intensive support from our partner organisations (those who provide activities for schools). Primary teachers tend to recognise the value of hands-on, practical activities in stimulating interest in the sciences—but because so few primary teachers have science backgrounds, they often lack confidence, which is why they value the support from us and our partners. We need to ensure that, despite the challenging funding situation, teachers in primary and secondary schools continue to have access to providers of high quality practical activities and field trips that encourage children's interest in the sciences.

18.  Finally, one of our activity provider partners has commented that with the loss of the STEM Advisory Forum from April 2011, there is no longer a channel through which providers of practical activities, field trips, etc. can voice their opinions.

Is the experience of schools in England in line with schools in the devolved administrations and other countries?

19.  We can use the numbers of CREST Awards achieved by secondary students as a proxy for the amount of practical work going on in schools across the UK. In 2008, Northern Ireland students achieved 5,461 Awards which was 21% of the total number achieved in the UK, despite only having 3% of the UK's population of 10 to 19-year-olds.[13] A similar phenomenon, though less exaggerated, can be observed in the figures for Wales and Scotland which may suggest that schools in devolved administrations are able to offer more practical work opportunities to their students. Any such conclusion would require further research though, since perhaps students in England are being offered practical work opportunities outside our programmes.


The British Science Association is in receipt of grant funding from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Department for Education towards the CREST Awards programme and from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills for the National Science and Engineering Competition.

British Science Association

6 May 2011

6   Science Community Representing Education (2008) Practical Work in Science: A Report and Proposal for a Strategic Framework, Royal Society, London Back

7   PISA 2006: Science Competencies for Tomorrow's World, Vol. 1, pp258-264 and Executive Summary pp43-44 Back

8 Back

9   Grant, L (2006). CREST Awards Evaluation Impact Study, University of Liverpool Back

10   Abrahams, I and Millar, R (2009). Practical Work: making it more effective. School Science Review, 91 (334), 59-64. Back

11   Grant, L (2006). CREST Awards Evaluation Impact Study, University of Liverpool Back

12 Back

13   Figures taken from Office for National Statistics Back

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Prepared 14 September 2011