"The study of science developed from exploring the world around us and wanting to develop and innovate"

Posted on: 13 Feb 2017
Posted by: Caroline Jones

Following news that more and more science is being taught without any practical work, Caroline Jones, acting head of science at New Hall School says "practical experiments are fundamental to the pursuit of science knowledge."

The dictionary describes science as a branch of knowledge involving systemised observation of and experiment with phenomena. Practical experiments are fundamental to the pursuit of science knowledge. Without practical investigation none of the major scientific breakthroughs in history would have occurred. The study of science developed from exploring the world around us and wanting to develop and innovate.

Practical work in science classes is dying out. New teachers are becoming concerned about carrying out practical work in the classroom. A lack of time for preparation means they are unfamiliar with experimental techniques. Space in labs can be limited and inadequate for the students to carry out practical. Set sizes have grown resulting in one teacher trying to manage too many students during practical sessions. As a result the students’ experience of practical work can be frustrating and confusing.

In the science department at New Hall we try to engage students through practical work throughout the school. From Year 7 our science lessons are taught by experienced, specialist teachers who are enthusiastic about their subject. Experience within the department is shared to ensure that all teachers are trained on new equipment and experimental procedures. We have specialist, experienced technicians who support the students’ practical work from Year 7 through to A level.

We are fortunate to already have eight well-stocked laboratories and are in the process of designing a purpose built science department. This building project has been driven by the desire for facilities which enable the students to carry out effective practical work and learn through investigation. It will have spacious open labs, with designated practical areas, along with provision for technician support and computers for research and data logging. It will enable students to complete ongoing practical work to develop their independent research skills and enable them to become more confident investigating unfamiliar concepts.

We believe that the development of practical skills begins from the start of a child’s education and have developed close links with the preparatory division and feeder schools. A senior science teacher is in contact with the preparatory division advising their science department, teaching science classes and allowing access to equipment that would not always be available to that age range. It also enables the pupils in the preparatory division to become familiar with experimental techniques used throughout the school. We have close ties with our feeder schools and link schools and our teachers visit and deliver content otherwise inaccessible to them to help inspire through practical investigation. Our sixth form students help develop the practical skills of the next generation and have volunteered at Physics Fest, a hands-on event for primary school aged children.

Practical skills are also developed through extracurricular activities. The students in the lower years join science club where they are able to explore science outside the curriculum. Students have covered wide-ranging activities from making pinhole cameras and developing their own photographs, to designing robots and entering the Lego Mindstorms global competition. Our older students attend lectures by top scientists to expand their understanding of current research. Visits, such as the Particle Physics Masterclass at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and a planned visit to CERN, show them world-class research facilities in this country and on the continent. The older students also apply their practical skills to their Extended Project Qualifications which have included designing and building a wide variety of machines from trebuchets to hovercraft.

Practical work in science reconnects the students with the subject and allows them to learn through their own experience. It allows them to investigate and prove concepts for themselves. It adds to their understanding of the subject and its relevance to the world around them. It shows them the reason for studying the subject. We are fortunate that we have the resources available to support students in developing their practical skills. As students have gained confidence in their science learning the numbers studying triple science GCSE and A level have continued to rise. The diamond model at the school also ensures that the gender gap in science is not seen at New Hall, for example we have similar numbers of boys and girls studying both triple science GCSE and studying physics in Year 13.

Lab work is a crucial element of science classes and we aim to develop and expand it in the future. Lessons should be designed to add to the practical experience of the students. We encourage students to complete ongoing experiments to investigate the concepts covered in class. We aim to engage students with the subject. They need to learn through experiment and improve their confidence in carrying out practical research. They need to see the practical applications of the subjects they are studying and develop the practical skills needed to continue the research, development and innovation needed in our modern world.

About Caroline Jones

Caroline Jones is acting head of science at New Hall School, a co-educational boarding and day school in Essex.