Classroom ideas: Making science engaging and exciting

Written by: Catrin Green | Published:
Image: MA Education/Lucie Carlier

Student engagement is a priority in the STEM subjects. Here, school leader Catrin Green offers some quick ideas to foster a love of science in students and encourage them consider it as a future career

Science explains everything around us and is without a shadow of a doubt the best subject there is. But often students see it as a list of facts to be learnt about stuff they can’t see.

It is up to us as educators to bridge that gap, using relevance, excitement, and great planning to foster a love of science before our students leave school.

Not only is it important that the students have a good grounding in science so that they can understand things in the world around them, but it is also vital for society as so many employers are searching for students with good understanding of STEM subjects but finding few with the appropriate qualifications.

With more and more students now taking science GCSE as a result of changing school performance table requirements, it is more important than ever to reflect on how we make sure all of our students are engaged and successful in science.

There are many different extra-curricular events you can get involved in and speakers who can visit your school (see page 14 for an article on the free STEM Ambassadors programme, for example), but this article will look at the day-to-day things that can be incorporated into your planning to make science the best subject in your school.

Show them science is exciting

Like it or not, science is still struggling to lose its reputation as being a geeky subject and students increasingly see science as a subject for “neeks” (also known as swots) as they progress through secondary school. The key here is keeping science exciting and fun while at the same time meeting the highest academic standards to ensure your students are successful.

Quick, exciting starters, genius facts and demos with a bang can make even teaching titrations or electricity more exciting.

Starters

Start with a bang – a demo as a starter can hook students where otherwise they may be apathetic. So start studying the periodic table using Colourful Hydrogen Balloons (see further information for all resource links). It will take five minutes and students will want to learn about what they have just seen.

Begin lessons on states of matter using custard as a non-Newtonian fluid, then back this up with some of the larger scale versions of this experiment on YouTube. Although using practicals in science has some critics, science is a practical subject and should be taught that way, just make sure the practicals are grounded in theory.

Lots of ideas can be found online, including the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Steve Spangler Science website and the Nuffield Foundation, and there is a great download featuring 15 attention-grabbing science demonstrations from Colorado State University.

Interesting stories and facts

Use current news stories on a topic to get their brains going at the beginning of the class. When studying spectroscopy in GCSE chemistry, start with the recent news story that perfume traces can be used to solve crimes. Start lessons on disease with news headlines of the Zika epidemic and then discuss how likely it is to affect us in the UK.

Or pick up some interesting facts to wow students that relate to what you are teaching. Tell them that potatoes have two more chromosomes than humans or get students to work out how long it would take for a light wave to travel to the moon*.

When teaching speed and velocity, tell students that the average person walks the equivalent of five times around the world in their lifetime and then get students to work out how fast that is on average if a person lives to 80.

There is also nothing wrong with a bad science joke. Why can’t you trust atoms? They make up everything (and yes I know this might go against what I said about not making science geeky!). In all seriousness they can help to build relationships and embed some facts.

Looking for inspiration? Try online at websites such as IFL Science, The Naked Scientists, Popular Science, Snapshot Science and more.

Engage with Twitter too – you will find loads of inspiration by following the New Scientist, Institute of Physics, NASA, Science Daily and others. There are also a number of fab science teachers on Twitter sharing ideas and it makes a fantastic sustainable CPD tool.

Playing on emotions

Science is often seen as factual and static, often making some students see it as boring. Use students’ emotions to keep them engaged – make science relevant to their lives, involve them in debate and tell them stories.

Incomplete combustion can be introduced through the tragic story of the Shepherd children who died due a faulty boiler on holiday in Corfu. Go through the devastating impact of the Chernobyl disaster on the people of Pripyat before studying radiation. Show students photos of events and ask them “why?” and “what next?” as part of a think-pair-share activity.

Use debates and role-playing to look at the big ideas in science – it will engage those students who tend to prefer humanities to science.

Choose controversial debates, such as whether we should all be vegetarian or if the police should be allowed to keep a database of people’s DNA. Stress that science is just as useful to a judge or a farmer as it is to a doctor. The BioEthics Education Project is a good place to start for ideas.

Making reviewing fun

So you have managed to make the topic exciting and engage your students, but of course that is not enough to make them love science – they also need to feel successful at it.

To do this, students need to remember an awful lot but helping them with this does not have to mean dull mind maps (although they do have some use).

Instead use fun activities to help students learn key words and improve their explanations. When reviewing, whatever you do, avoid teacher talk as much as you can. While I am an advocate of teacher-led discussion and explanation when introducing tough topics which require deep understanding, revising is often not the time for this as it fails to adequately meet the needs of all.

Conversely you will also need to avoid leaving them to revise independently, as this is a key skill you need to help them develop.

Use keyword games such as Splat, Bingo, Articulate and quizzes to make sure they know the basics. Make up songs (or check out YouTube) to help them remember more complicated processes.

Get students to come up with dances to help them remember physics equations or sequences of events (like how a power station works).

Make sure you have a review segment during most lessons, referring to previous learning and other related topics as leaving it until test time will be too late and will really hinder your ability to move students forward, which is a sure fire way to lose their interest.

Make them see how worthwhile science is

Science is useful in so many walks of life but people often don’t appreciate this until their school days are long gone. Students are becoming clued up now to the importance of maths to their future lives and as such maths has recently become the most widely studied subject at A level. It is about time we did the same in science.

Sometimes in a rush to teach our vast and detailed curriculum we lose sight of why we are asking our students to learn in the first place. Instead, start lessons with why the topic is relevant and important.

So instead of diving head-first into teaching what comprises an atom, start the lesson using Lego to show the importance of building blocks or teach electricity in the context of a mobile phone.

Show students regularly how science may help them in their future careers – and make the careers as diverse as possible. Give them examples of how science could lead them to be genetic councillors, police officers or how physics might help them to become better football players.

The government-funded Your Life campaign provides imaginative ways to build STEM careers into your teaching, from the Science of Superheroes to the Secret Science of Cycling.

In your wall displays show students examples of roles that need science and the qualifications they need to get into them.

Be very careful not to gender stereotype with careers and celebrate female scientists such as Rosalind Franklin and Helen Sharma. This is important because there is still a disproportionately low number of women in STEM careers, especially at senior levels. Also reflect those of different backgrounds and ethnicities – science must be open to everyone.

Find opportunities where you can get students to follow their own passions, perhaps through independent study projects where they can learn for the sake of learning – after all that’s what real love of learning is. They may be fascinated with anything from the Large Hadron Collider to how in the future we might be able to grow our own meat in a laboratory.

Conclusion

This article has outlined the small things that can foster a love of science in your classroom. But as with most ideas they can never work in isolation. Trips to universities and museums open students’ eyes to things that the classroom simply cannot. And remember, your students will never love science unless they are taught well – without excellent explanation, modelling and feedback, engagement means almost nothing.

  • Catrin Green is a deputy headteacher and author of Secondary Science: Respiration Is Not Breathing! (Crown House Publishing: ISBN 9781781352410).

* 1.3 seconds

Resources and References


Comments
Name
 
Email
 
Comments
 

Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
 
Sign up SecEd Bulletin