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Laboratories are intended for practical work, vital for pupil learning in science. The design of new or remodelled science accommodation is an excellent time to examine the current practices that exist amongst science teachers and technicians and plan to change them, in tune with the design, if thought necessary. 

National science education guidance in England highlights that practical work of some kind should be taking place in at least 75% of all science lessons. 

Evidence suggests that high-quality practical work has a clear purpose, forms part of a wider instructional sequence and takes place only when pupils have enough prior knowledge to learn from the activity. 

Teacher demonstrations play an important role in helping teach scientific knowledge to students. However, providing fit-for-purpose dedicated spaces for this element of teaching is not always thoughtfully considered at the design stage.  

Has science education failed us?

A radical school of thought has voiced the opinion that science education has failed. At a time when science and particularly the spread of virus and the development of vaccines are at the forefront of every news outlet, this might seem an extreme argument. However, the vast majority of the public has not been provided with a scientific education that has adequately prepared them for the COVID-19 global pandemic or to fully understand the science behind other global issues such as climate change. 

It is reported that a significant number of people around the globe are refusing the vaccine and we have all been bombarded with advertising instructing us on the correct way to wash our hands. Government briefings have highlighted disparity amongst senior officials in understanding some basic scientific concepts. 

YouGov surveyed primary and secondary school teachers and reported 70% agreed that the current UK curriculum needs radical change to make the education system fit for purpose. As a nation, we need more scientists, engineers and technicians if our knowledge economy is to flourish.  Practical science, in theory, promotes the learning of science in different ways, such as learning new practical techniques, supporting the understanding of a scientific theory and developing the skills of scientific enquiry, but they also have a wider purpose of engaging with young people and helping them to develop work-readiness skills such as teamwork and communication.  

The WellcomeTrusts 2019 research into young people’s attitudes towards science education found that many young people don’t see science relevant to their everyday lives.  

Interest declines over time – from 83% in year 7 to 73% in year 8 and 68% in year 9. 

Young people do not just need more or varied knowledge, they need an opportunity to engage in a fundamentally different educational experience. 

Practically Perfect 

The gap between school science and workplace laboratory science grows ever wider. 

A 2020 study published in School Science Review found that students who watched a teacher’s live demonstration outperformed those who had only watched a video and read their instructions. 

Research from the Wellcome Trust found that practical work is key to motivating students in science. 

55% of students in years 7-9 and 32% of students in years 10-13 say that practical work is the most motivating aspect of science lessons. 

62% of students in years 7-11 want to do more practical work. 

A report ‘Good Practical Science – making it happen post-Covid-19’ published by the Association for Science Education (ASE) highlights the importance of practical science, in the wake of a pandemic that made every teacher and technician think differently about their delivery. 

The purposes of practical science most frequently emphasised were using practical work to help students understand the theory, and for motivation. Far less emphasis was placed on the teaching of transferrable practical skills, principles of enquiry or communication and teamwork, although, on return to school or college, respondents intended to place a similar emphasis on each of these five purposes. 

1  TO TEACH THE PRINCIPLES OF SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY
2 TO IMPROVE UNDERSTANDING OF THEORY THROUGH PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE
3 TO TEACH SPECIFIC PRACTICAL SKILLS, SUCH AS MEASUREMENT AND OBSERVATION, THAT MAY BE USEFUL IN FUTURE STUDY OR EMPLOYMENT
4 TO MOTIVATE AND ENGAGE STUDENTS
5 TO DEVELOP HIGHER-LEVEL SKILLS AND ATTRIBUTES SUCH AS COMMUNICATION, TEAMWORK AND PERSEVERANCE 

Taken from Good Practical Science by Sir John Holman (2017) 

The Power of Demonstration 

A scientific demonstration is a process of teaching young people how to make or do something in a step-by-step process. As you show how you “tell” what you are doing. 

You can use teacher demonstration for a variety of reasons. How you plan and conduct a demonstration will have a significant impact on how your students respond and learn from the experience. An appropriate demonstration is not always simple to apply effectively to a topic in an educational environment but the impact on students’ learning can be immense. 

Teacher demonstrations are vital because they: 

  • provide students with experiences of real events, phenomena and processes, helping them learn and remember 
  • raise students’ engagement and motivation levels 
  • enable you to focus students on a particular phenomenon or event, such as the starch test for foods 
  • can be used to develop confidence and challenge their understanding of a topic 
  • can assist students to perform their own practical work  

Regular practical demonstrations offer opportunities for meaningful participation in learning that can enhance understanding of more complex theoretical concepts. Leading science educators make the point that there is always a place for an ‘interesting, sometimes unforgettable, demonstration that may form an important episode in a student’s learning’ (Wellington and Ireson, 2012). 

Dedicated Space to Demonstrate 

In our recent survey and whitepaper, nearly 10% of respondents stated that a dedicated demonstration space would be the element they would like most to add to their laboratory space. 

In some cases, the teacher’s desk had been combined with a demonstration space, the position of which often obstructed the student’s view of the whiteboard and prevented them from being used in tandem.  

We advise that laboratory design includes a modest space dedicated to demonstrations, where teachers have easy access to services and can set up additional equipment such as microscopes and visualisers. 

At WF Education we design spaces that work for the students and teachers that spend time in them, understanding the challenges of multi-purpose spaces. 

Talk to us about your Laboratory 

Together, we can create an amazing space… 

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