Make science go with a bang

Posted on: 17 Aug 2017

Dr Toby Murcott, science teacher at Monmouth School Girls' Prep, says schools should make science fun by relating it back to real-life.

There’s an inbuilt tension in every experiment in a teaching lab. The practicals need to have a predetermined result, but this is the complete opposite of real life experiments. Here the outcome is often predicted, but never predetermined. If you want to be purist about it, attempting to predetermine the outcome of an experiment is scientific fraud.

This tension extends all the way up to undergraduate teaching. It was only during my third year project that I did experiments which were not carefully tailored to produce a desired result. Real science in other words.

Experiments can be tricky. A few degrees too cold, add solutions in the wrong order or wrap the string the wrong way around a pulley and it all collapses. So if a particular outcome is needed, then the protocol has to be carefully designed and strictly followed. It leaves very little room for students to explore and experiment. It didn’t surprise me in the least to read that school science practicals are “boring and irrelevant”. And I suspect many other science teachers will have had a similar reaction.

So what to do? I don’t have many answers. None, I suspect, are original. But I do have one advantage, wide-eyed naïveté.

I’m a scientist by training, a journalist by trade and I’ve just completed my first year teaching science in an all-girls prep school aged 54.

As far as I possibly could I set every experiment in an everyday context, just because it made more sense to me. Solubility came with a story. We were setting up a new food manufacturing company that needed to reduce waste and make money. So we needed to know how much sugar and how much salt dissolved in how much water, and how long it took. Did temperature make a difference? What about stirring? My first few experiments had carefully thought out worksheets, which the girls duly failed to follow properly, much to my initial irritation. But then I started saying yes to their own ideas and gave them more space to work out their own experiments. They got better at using the equipment and quickly realised that if they didn’t do the same thing then they could not draw any conclusion from their results. We got no coherent answers, but an awful lot of questions and a lot of enthusiasm. This reflects my own experience of being a research scientist much better than beautifully synchronised results.

One of the things real science is full of is mystery, genuinely exploring the unknown. So as much as possible I tried to add this into the experiments. We did the classic pectolase experiment. A solution of the enzyme pectolase is added to chopped apple and incubated for a short while. Then the resulting mixture strained through a filter paper and the volume of liquid produced measured. A second identical experiment was done in parallel using water as a control. Except we didn’t use pectolase and water, we had two mystery liquids A and B. At the end we collated results and it was very clear that liquid A produced more juice than liquid B. We then tried to work out what it was from its action and we had a variety of interesting and imaginative guesses. When it came to explaining, it was easy, they were all desperate to know. A mystery unravelled.

Demystifying is, in my view, a key function of science. We live in a world of black box technology that does almost magical things, and I wanted to expose their innards and show them to be the result of science and technology. So I appealed to parents for any dead technology. Got hold of a range of screwdrivers, donned safety specs and let the girls loose. There was no direction other than let’s see. No worksheet other than paper to draw what they found. No outcome other than to explore. It was a huge hit and allowed each girl to discover for themselves. They found out that electric motors contain hundreds of meters of thin copper wire. That computer hard disks are incredibly smooth and shiny. That Dyson hoovers are very difficult to get apart and use very unusual screw heads.

I realised as the year came to an end that what had worked well was when the experiments linked in some way to real life, and when they could genuinely explore and experiment. We never had enough time to answer the girls’ questions and nothing was ever neatly wrapped up. Just like real science. They can now answer some exam type questions such as which is more soluble, salt or sugar? What does the enzyme pectolase do? They are very familiar with using simple lab equipment and thinking about what makes a good experiment. I don’t know what they will do in future but my aim is to show them that science is just a way of thinking and, crucially, within their grasp. And fun too.

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About Dr Toby Murcott

Dr Toby Murcott is a science teacher at Monmouth School Girls' Prep.