Published on 14/01/15
Hands-on practical work has a huge part to play in stimulating both enjoyment and understanding in the learning of science - for a Year 7 student, growing a high quality copper sulphate crystal for themselves can be every bit as amazing as watching a whizzy hi-tech demonstration.
A very simple practical that I use in Year 10 always gets gasps of surprise: drop a phone directory and observe, drop a single page torn from the directory and observe, drop the single sheet sitting (not attached) on top of the directory and observe....an example of "cognitive dissonance", great for getting the students really motivated to go on to understand Newton's laws so that they can go home and demonstrate and explain to their families.
It doesn't all have to be practical - a well chosen video clip can enthral students; in fact it might need to be 2 or 3 different clips to get all the students enthralled
Knowing our students as individuals, and what will catch the imagination of each one of them, definitely matters; different girls and boys will often need different "ways in". Simulations are also extremely powerful; especially when they help to visualise the invisible, reinforce important points or focus on the key issues by stripping away distractions.
An excellent example is the "Physics Revision Games" app which puts EChalk on an iPad. This comprises a wide array of simulations on different topics which each fulfil one or more of the above criteria. It is always vital to remember, however, that any computer model shows only what the software engineer designs it to show....not necessarily at all the same as the real world, and this brings us back to the importance of what distinguishes science - falsifiable hands-on experimental work.
"Ownership" of the subject is another really important factor that contributes to how well students progress. They need to feel that the science really belongs to them and applies to their lives on a day-to-day basis. I am all in favour of promoting the excitement of Big Science - the Big Bang, the Genome, the Large Hadron Collider - but sometimes these topics can make the science seem beyond the reach of the student so when we meet them it is important to give the students some link into their own understanding; of course we must not pretend there are not complexities way beyond school science but we must lay down some mental stepping-stones so that the students do not feel completely disconnected.
Our Y9 Science Investigations Critical Thinking module gives the girls the opportunity to experience research for themselves at an appropriate level. Inspired by a talk from a "real" researcher, students go on to choose, plan and carry out their own practical investigation in class time over several weeks; the fact that it is their choice makes a massive difference to what they get out of it, and of course they often surprise us with the ingenuity they show and the complexity of the understanding they develop. One of the strengths of iPads is how they can enhance this key sense of ownership of a subject for a student.
Although we may have reservations about how attached to their tablet a young person becomes, we can capitalise on that attachment.The notes, photos of experiments and demos, spreadsheets of results, spreadsheet models of equations, video clips of science beyond the school lab, Explain Everything explanations by their own teacher, simulations - all of these and much more carried around on the device that they feel at home with and will happily turn to - can only help to develop their sense of being at ease with the study of the sciences. It certainly helps that they can customise much of it and can access whatever is most helpful to them whenever it is most useful.