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

Written evidence submitted by the Earth Science Teachers' Association (Sch Sci 06)

The Earth Science Teachers' Association is a UK-wide teaching association with some 500 members, most of whom are engaged in teaching A-level or GCSE geology but are mostly also involved in secondary science education. ESTA members also teach in primary schools and in geography departments as well as in teacher education and Higher Education. ESTA was formed as the Association of Teachers of Geology in 1967 and since then has been supporting teachers of Earth science and geology, the Earth science/geology curriculum and the wider teaching of Earth science across the nation.

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

ESTA has worked for many years in collaboration with the Earth Science Education Unit which brings practically-based Earth science workshops to trainee teachers and practising science teachers across the UK, through a team of regionally-based facilitators in England, Scotland and Wales. The wide range of practical activities has proved very popular with both practising and trainee science teachers at primary and secondary level, and research carried out by the ESEU has shown that the activities are widely used in schools following ESEU visits (King and Lydon, 2009). Teachers who have used the activities have responded that they have "brought the lesson to life" and made the lessons much more engaging and understandable to students.

Fieldwork is and always has been an underpinning part of geology education as evidenced by the fact that the GCSE geology specification and the two A-level geology specifications all strongly recommend fieldwork. ESTA members argue that students can not gain a proper understanding of Earth science without engaging with rock exposures in the field, and applying the methodology of geology to understanding the geological settings of the rocks they examine. This not only involves a number of skills unique to geology fieldwork, but also develops wider thinking and investigational skills as well as all the social skills associated with working in the field. Many geology teachers of all levels would argue that it is impossible to gain a proper understanding of how geology is studied, and what geologists do and find out, without experiencing fieldwork. Many also note that their own interest in geology was sparked by a fieldwork experience during their own education, and that we should continue to offer these experiences to spark and maintain interest in the geologists of the future, as well as in the wider population. The emphasis on the fieldwork may underpin the recent increase in geology exam entries at all levels, recorded by King and Jones (2011).

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

ESTA members have anecdotally reported increasing difficulty in being able to undertake fieldwork, for the following reasons:

—  the "rarely cover" regulations which mean that schools find it more difficult and expensive to cover the lessons of teachers taking fieldwork during school time;

—  increased emphasis on health and safety regulations, meaning the arranging of fieldwork has become much more time-consuming and paper-intensive than previously;

—  specifications in science that are very time consuming, particularly those with some forms of practical assessment, leaving little time for fieldwork;

—  the need to argue for fieldwork to be supported within all the other broader curriculum constraints that operate in schools and colleges; and

—  increasing expense.

3.  What part do health and safety concerns play in preventing school pupils from performing practical experiments in science lessons and going on field trips? What rules and regulations apply to science experiments and field trips and how are they being interpreted?

Anecdotal evidence over many years has shown that authorities respond to increasing health and safety concerns by increasing paperwork, when a much more effective method might have been to invest in professional development that would train the teaching workforce to anticipate and cope with potentially hazardous fieldwork. This would have had the effect of releasing teachers to lead more effective fieldwork, rather than being a disincentive to leading fieldwork. Further anecdotal evidence indicates that some schools and colleges have much more effective policies and procedures for facilitating and supporting fieldwork than others.

Had there been recognised certificated courses for leading fieldwork and funding for teachers to attend these courses, the effect would have been more effective and probably less hazardous fieldwork, and a much wider understanding of the benefits of fieldwork coupled with many more fieldwork experiences being available to pupils. Such courses would have been of real benefit to trainee and practising science teachers alike. The lack of such courses over many years, despite efforts by ESTA and other teaching organisations interested in fieldwork, has been a continuing disappointment. It represents a failure of our education system to engage and inspire students in ways that could have transformed their lives, and which would have had impact far beyond the confines of science.

4.  Do examination boards adequately recognise practical experiments and trips?

As noted above, both GCSE Geology and the A-level Awarding Bodies all strongly recommend fieldwork. However, this is not the case with GCSE science examinations. The case for outdoor science would be much stronger if GCSE science awarding bodies supported outdoor science activities more strongly.

5.  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?

Recent evidence has shown that 45% of the applicants for UCAS undergraduate courses in geology have studied A-level geology or Scottish Higher geology at school. Many of these will have been inspired to take up geology in the first place, and then to continue studying geology through Higher Education, by fieldwork.

6.  What changes should be made?

A nationally recognised and accredited fieldwork leadership course should be devised that would focus on the leadership of effective investigational fieldwork and how this should be implemented most successfully and in the safest and most healthy ways. Such a course should be well supported and funded as well as being broadly applicable to all school-level fieldwork. By the investment of relatively small amounts of funding to such an initiative, the fieldwork experiences of students across the country could be much more widespread and even more effective than they are today.

Meanwhile the Science and Technology Committee should encourage further developments in school level fieldwork through:

—  highlighting to all those involved in education the benefits of fieldwork shown by research;

—  reducing the hurdles to the implementation of fieldwork in schools and colleges;

—  encouraging Awarding Bodies to raise the profile of fieldwork in their science specifications and their assessments;

—  encouraging the development of fieldwork education in teacher education institutions and CPD courses for practising teachers;

—  encouraging further research into the impact of fieldwork on student learning, motivation and career aspirations, and into the initiatives outlined above; and

—  instigating cross-school subject support for fieldwork, involving, science, geography, history, etc.

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

Feedback from ESTA members in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales gives a very similar perspective to that described above, with the same issues and constraints. This is not surprising as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland at least, teaching is to the same specifications (in science and geology) so it is not surprising that the issues are similar.


King, C and Jones, B (2011). A good news story—the recent rise of Geology exam entries. Teaching Earth Sciences, 36.1, 63-70. ISSN 0957-8005.

Lydon, S & King, C (2009). Can a single, short CPD workshop cause change in the classroom? Journal of In-Service Education, 35.1, 63-82. ISSN 1941-5257.

Earth Science Teachers' Association

8 May 2011

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Prepared 14 September 2011