John Holman (RSC, Wellcome Trust, University of York) ran a session at the ASE meeting in January 2016 on attitudes to practical science at schools around the world.  This was my response to a call for reflections in July following the meeting.

“Thank you for your email and the attached report. John and I have met since the ASE meeting in January to discuss the role of Young Scientists Journal in encouraging and inspiring school students to engage in science projects with publication as a motivating end-point. I would like to contribute my thoughts on practical work, especially highlighting the incorrect perceptions that students and teachers have about the difficulty of carrying out independent research projects. I believe that if we can tackle this, we can unlock a great deal more scientific creativity from our science students.

My reflections on the state of practical work in the UK come from 22 years of teaching physics in independent schools with a wealth of resources with regard to the teaching, equipment and qualified technician support. This has been followed by 2 years working in some of the most challenged areas of East Kent as a Teaching and Learning Coach for the Institute of Physics and a trainer for Physics Partners. Through this work I have learned a great deal about the barriers to students’ development in practical science. I would go so far as to say that poor teaching (due to acute and chronic recruitment and retention problems), lack of equipment and dearth of experienced (let alone qualified) technicians leads to stunted growth in the development of these students as practical scientists – and perhaps even in their educational development overall.

The introduction of required practicals at GCSE (and A level) looks set to increase the amount of practical work undertaken in science classes, though there are huge problems with the affordability of the necessary equipment and technicians able to select it, set it up and maintain it. Some practicals, e.g. measuring specific heat capacity, require a big (re-)investment in equipment long neglected and possibly disposed of years ago, especially if the school has no sixth form. There are initiatives exploring cheaper alternatives to such practicals and they deserve as much support as possible. The Institute of Physics is helping through its discussion forum, TalkPhysics, and a project I have been involved with is producing CPD videos for teachers: ThinkPhysics.

At the other end of the scale, I know that in some UK schools there is some excellent practical project work going on and I know this because the journal I founded, Young Scientists Journal, publishes it. Organisations such as CREST and Nuffield Research Placements, as well as qualifications such as the Extended Project Qualification, do much to encourage independent research projects in science and IRIS initiatives are also making a contribution now. Many of the articles submitted to YSJ from UK schools originated in one of these projects.

There is a huge gap between the educationally-deprived scenario mentioned earlier and the high-tech environment of a school lucky enough to own a cosmic ray detector, wind tunnel or scanning electron microscope. This gap also exists between schools struggling to deliver the basics of the science curriculum and those with staff motivated enough to bring in research scientists to work with their pupils, deliver talks or offer work experience. However, I believe there is much we can do to bridge this gap by demonstrating that authentic research need not require expensive kit, complex risk assessments or even super-motivated teachers.

In a recent issue of YSJ we published an article about leaf miners in horse chestnut trees, a piece of original research carried out by students at a north London comprehensive equipped with nothing more than a microscope and a lot of patience counting leaves! In other schools, students have tested the efficacy of sports drinks or logged onto free robotic telescopes and discovered new near-Earth objects.

These projects excite students because they are discovering something new, being motivated to work independently of teachers and inspired to consider a career in STEM. Young Scientists Journal’s mission is to publish original research like this and thus show teachers and pupils what is possible. I co-wrote an article for School Science Review last December together with authors from the Royal Society on the importance of publishing science – and starting at an early age.  The Wellcome Trust reported in April on the barriers preventing schools from doing more independent research.

If Britain is to ‘go it alone’ in science research, without the support and connections of the EU and without the influx of brilliant university students from Europe, it is more vital than ever that the government support initiatives to encourage high quality science research for students while they are still at school.”