School practicals are important, they’re not everything
My first science lesson still sticks in my memory some 30-odd years later. After a brief introduction to the importance of observation and experimentation, our teacher weighed some magnesium foil in a small crucible before setting it alight and reweighing the ashes. It had gained weight rather than lost it – quite unexpected to our nine-year-old minds. So we learned that combustion was the result of adding oxygen to the magnesium. Crucially during all this, our teacher insisted that one of us students accompanied him to the balance, to witness the weighing – and make sure he wasn’t cheating. Nullius in verba – take nobody’s word for it – in action.
I’m not sure which learning outcome of that lesson had the greatest impact. We learned that a scientist’s most important instrument was their eyes – not the Bunsen burners our teacher was oddly keen to show off. We learned that hypotheses – whether things gain or lose weight when burned in this case – can be tested experimentally. And we learned that you need to see the results for yourself.
It’s worth noting that in this memorable lesson – one of the many factors that led me down the path of an A-level, degree, PhD and publishing career in chemistry – I didn’t touch a single piece of apparatus. In fact, I can barely remember any of the practicals I did in those early years of school science lessons. In the well-intentioned push to ensure today’s students have memorable practical experiences in their science education, we must remember that doing experiments for the sake of it, without a strong connection to the material being learnt, is just not worth it. And on the other side of the equation, a well-performed demonstration or video, with plenty of interaction, can be equally or more powerful than a student-performed practical.
Thank goodness that’s the case, because in the past 18 months of the pandemic, students around the world have been unable to get into their school labs for extended periods of time. As Clare Sansom reports in her feature, resourceful teachers have made up for it with demonstrations, videos, online experiments and even some household experiments. Hopefully, the next generation of chemists will bounce back from this setback, even more eager to get into their labs and hone their experimental skills.
But what of the next generation of teachers? The pandemic has affected those in the early stages of their career too. The Royal Society of Chemistry surveyed trainee and newly qualified teachers in April this year, with worrying results. Almost 80% of those surveyed thought the pandemic had negatively affected their school placement experience, and around half felt unprepared to teach practical chemistry lessons.
But what of the next generation of teachers? The pandemic has affected those in the early stages of their career too. The Royal Society of Chemistry surveyed trainee and newly qualified teachers in April this year, with worrying results (https://rsc.li/3iy1HV7). Almost 80% of those surveyed thought the pandemic had negatively affected their school placement experience, and around half felt unprepared to teach practical chemistry lessons.
The RSC is calling for the UK government to plug this skills gap with £7 million in practicals-focused professional development for early career science teachers. It has also provided its own package of support and resources, including live online sessions on teaching practical chemistry, in addition to the extensive existing resources.
One would hope that it is obvious that a country cannot expect to produce a well-trained scientific workforce without well-trained and properly resourced science teachers. And that with a global pandemic, climate crisis and an ever-increasing economic reliance on high-tech industries, such a workforce would be highly desirable. At £7 million, the ‘miracle’ vaccine-makers, drug-developers and renewable-fuel-creators of the future seem like a bargain to me.