Schools are under a great deal of pressure to invest in an array of new curricula and programmes of study. At the same time budget constraints impact negatively on the provision for practical subjects such as science. Exam boards are assessing students on specified practical investigations, where students have a hands-on experience. In my experience most schools and academies are preparing for this by ‘practicing’ these from as early as year 7. This is an expensive strategy to ensure that students get the best grade possible in assessments.
So, what can we do as teachers and leaders in science to prepare our students by providing a level playing field but keep within the constraints of the budget? I would like to share my top tips to address this dilemma.
1. Are they ready to carry out the practical work?
Before planning a practical lesson, ask yourself: How does this fit in with the content? How much prior knowledge do they need to fully engage with the practical? What skills do they need?
2. Is this the best time of year to carry out the investigation?
With the demise of modular assessments, the content can be taught at any appropriate time during the two-year course. For example, pond weed used in photosynthesis investigations works much better in spring to summer.
3. Can I supervise the practical safely?
Identify practical’s that you intend to teach well in advance. Become familiar with any CLEAPPS or safety information before the practical. You are responsible for the safety of the students in your care. Don’t take familiar products for granted. Plaster of Paris is not classed as a dangerous substance but when mixed with water the core temperature, and everything else mixed into it increases significantly and can become a hazard. Builder’s sand can cause burns as it absorbs thermal energy if its 75 degrees outside the temperature of the sand will be more like 100. When water is added to dry concrete the mixture can have a pH of 12-13 which can result in burns.
4. Am I prepared?
Ask for support from experienced staff. These are not always the teachers that have been practicing for years but could be the NQT or ITT who have been trained to carry out some newer or recently reintroduced practical lessons. Practice the set up and follow the procedure carefully. Identify any problem areas and trouble shoot them before introducing the students.
5. Do they need to carry out the whole investigation?
Question whether students need to repeat the whole investigation several times. The scientific process should be dipped in and out of to serve the purpose of learning a skill. For example, do the students need to repeat the whole investigation if it is just the results that are not what they thought they would be? Should they compare the steps of their plan with others to identify errors here?
6. Would a microscale investigation work?
Do the students need to carry out a full-scale investigation? Can a microscale investigation give the same experience and comparable results? I recently saw a microscale neutralisation using a plastic dropping pipette as an alternative to the notoriously delicate and expensive burette. The results were comparable to a full-scale investigation but using less chemicals and a cheaper alternative to the burette. Once students are proficient, they can then use the burette more effectively for GCSE students.
7. Do I know how to care for the equipment?
Do staff understand how to care for the equipment? Do they pass these skills on to students? I asked a group of teachers if it was possible to break a magnet. The response was in the form of laughter. Magnets are essential pieces of equipment and it is time consuming to magnetise them and this is just one example.
8. Coil them don’t scrunch them
Before embarking on lessons using electrical equipment demonstrate the key equipment. Take them apart and show the workings. Students have informed me that electricity is boring because it never works. I have watched teachers scrunching up wires and even storing them in this state in carrier bags. By demonstrating how delicate the metal wire is inside the insulation students and teachers should appreciate how to treat the wires and prevent unnecessary damage.
9. Shop carefully
Ask science technicians from other schools and academies for their advice and recommendations when purchasing equipment. Often it isn’t necessary to purchase equipment and resources when you can make your own. Small cleaned jam pots make amazing alcohol burners for example.
10. Evaluate the information provided
The expensive makes of equipment are not always superior to the budget ones. In my experience one exception to this is the power pack. The more expensive ones can usually be repaired and parts purchased, where the budget ones have to be thrown away and replaced.
11. Don’t fall for the discount code!
Finally, research products as the non-discounted companies are often cheaper in the first place without a discount. Recently YPO costed some items for a project I was working on and without a discount still came in at £200 cheaper.