Going beyond practical science lessons

According to a recent report published by Sir John Holman, president of the Royal Society for Chemistry, high-stake exams are preventing schools from carrying out enough practical science activities. Many have responded by highlighting the importance of practical lessons, however, perhaps we need to take it further. 

Here, Professor Becky Parker, science teacher and director of the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) reflects on some of her past students and how working at the cutting edge of science research while in the classroom supports students’ interests and engagement with the subject, fostering a continued love of the subject. 

The most recent Industrial Strategy recognises the STEM skills gap facing the UK, setting out the importance of “encouraging students from an early age to have an understanding of science” and explaining this “needs to be a priority”.  The STEM skills gap has been a hot topic for many years, and the numerous schemes and incentives have resulted in more students continuing to study STEM subjects at university, but there is still more that can be done. 

It isn’t just a case of supporting students’ understanding of STEM subjects; it is just as much about inspiring them and fostering a passion for science. In order to do this, we need our teachers to be as inspired as the students. Currently, science teachers continue to be the hardest to recruit. So we need to make their roles more engaging and change their experience of being a science teacher. Allowing science teachers to explore the subject they love through real science projects is a key factor in attracting and retaining talented teachers that can inspire more students to continue in these fields, ultimately contributing to efforts to reduce the STEM skills gap. 

Professor Becky Parker, science teacher

Practical lessons offer students the chance to engage with the subject in a way that demonstrates how science can be applied to reality. It helps them to contextualise their learning if they are able to see how it might apply out in the field. However, we need to go beyond practical lessons that simply mimic real-life science if we want to truly inspire the next generation of scientists – in fact, who is to say there is an age restriction for scientists? Let’s actually use our classrooms to contribute to science research, appropriate to the age and experiences of our students, rather than replicating simplified experiments. 

One of my past students with the Institute of Research in Schools (IRIS) who just received her doctorate, actually had very low engagement with the subject before she worked on projects that contributed to real science research. It was this that helped Dr Chantal Nobbs grow in confidence, and ultimately inspired her to continue with her studies into university and her career.

Chantal didn’t relate to the careers around her growing up and intended to start her own business instead. At A-Level she chose further maths and business studies, and, knowing the importance of science skills, she opted for physics as she saw it as science subject most closely related to maths. She didn’t really understand how her physics lessons applied to the real world until she joined the first group of students sent to CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) to see real science at work. When she returned, she saw her science lessons in a new light and enjoyed them so much that she eventually decided to apply to study physics at university. Although the taste of real research was enough to inspire her to take the subject beyond A Level, it wasn’t until she was studying towards her undergraduate degree and spent a year in a particle accelerator in Vancouver that she truly saw where this career could take her. 

Here, she worked with machines to conduct hands on experiments, collecting data that no one had seen or used before, and contributed to research and development in a totally new way. This is when Chantal realised how important the work she was doing could be to the community and the study of nuclear physics in particular. Having recently completed her PhD, Dr Chantal Nobbs now works at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, where her work aims to create materials for self-sustaining devices to provide a more environmentally friendly way to run the national grid. By being right at the heart of cutting edge research, Chantal transformed from a student who struggled to find the meaning behind her science lessons, all because she was shown physics applied to real life.

Imagine if we could do this more and more at a younger age and in schools. Of course, the projects would be selected according to what is appropriate for that age group and experience, but the key is allowing the students themselves to see science as limitless. They are naturally curious and their open mindedness should be harnessed by experts, who can guide them in making valuable contributions to the field of research. 

This would offer teachers a chance to express their own interests and develop their own specialist research skills, attracting more talent into the many vacant science teacher positions and supporting staff retention.

Other subjects have benefitted from this for many years. Music teachers, for example, are often talented conductors and producers who are able to express their personal interests while engaging young musicians, and English teachers may be poets or authors in their spare time and inspire the next JK Rowling in the classroom. Let’s help STEM teachers and their students access real research projects – that’s the best way to protect the future of science and minimise the UK’s skills gap.