“I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do I understand.” Confucius.
This quote is something that I think epitomises the best approach to science education. It is by getting hands-on and doing research that students at any level will develop the depth of understanding that is so important.
For A level students thinking about taking a science degree, initial research into possible courses could appear at first sight as a long list of facts and figures that must be learnt and recited in order to gain a degree. However, studying at university is so much more than that.
As a research-led institution, at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) we try to infuse our passion for discovery and innovation into our undergraduate teaching at every level. We don’t just want our students to “hear” and “see” the latest research techniques or scientific developments, we want them to “do”, to get involved.
It is this practical approach to science that helps young people to develop the skills looked for by employers, and I think this approach also opens up the subject to a wider range of students who may not do well at learning just by reading or attending lectures.
So how do you create engaging, practical science lessons that can both excite pupils about the subject and that will prepare them for study at a higher level – while also taking into consideration the restraints of schools budgets and the national curriculum?
Here are some tips from how we approach science learning in our biological sciences and bioveterinary sciences degrees that can be taken into schools.
A testable hypothesis
Right from day one, our students are taught the underpinning processes of all scientific endeavour – the importance of designing hypotheses. A scientific hypothesis needs to be based on empirical observations, that must be tested (and testable) and retested until they can be accepted or refuted. An early assignment for our students is to work in small groups to design an experiment which tests a hypothesis that they have devised.
This is something that schools can easily replicate. An experiment can be designed using minimal equipment, resources and time – the most important part of this exercise is understanding the process of developing and testing a hypothesis.
Instead of just giving your students a hypothesis for them to test out, try giving them some broad parameters in which to create their own hypothesis and ask them to think about how they will test this hypothesis to reach their conclusion.
Keeping it real
We all know that dry facts are hard to digest but adding some context can really help students to understand a scientific process or principle. For example, within biology it could be thinking about what happens when things go wrong in a particular biological process that can really help to illustrate the different aspects being studied. Creating a debate or discussion based around real-world examples that students can recognise and relate to can really stimulate some fantastic learning, which can then be backed up by the teacher with evidence and examples.
At university we devote a considerable amount of time in our curriculum to “directed learning” sessions, rather than relying solely on lectures as this type of passive learning experience does not always lead to long-term understanding. This approach is also slightly different to much of the teaching at a school level but is an important bridge to developing more independent learners able to succeed in higher education.
During a directed learning session, students work in small groups to solve a problem related to the topic being taught. They use recently published, high-quality research stimulating them to think more broadly than would be possible in the lecture setting.
With changes to publishing processes in recent years you will find now that there is a lot more freely accessible academic research available on the internet. Rather than giving students specific examples of research that might help them in their task, simply give them links to resources where they can search for scientific research and see what they can find.
This in itself helps to foster a more in-depth understanding of the subject as students think about what key words to search and how they evaluate which research is going to help them with the task at hand.
Students are then encouraged to share their findings with each other, either in the form of formal presentations or group feedback at the end of the learning session. By setting groups working to tackle to same problem, this feedback session at the end of the lesson is vital because it fosters more in-depth discussion and gives students a greater appreciation of the different ways to tackle the same scientific problem.
The value of practical hands-on experiences to drive independent learning cannot be underestimated within a science curriculum. The act of doing gives students the opportunity to revise their learning from lectures and directed learning sessions.
There is a general agreement that seeing something happen (eg touching and feeling a real organ or tissue) brings the concept under investigation into sharp focus.
Similarly devising experiments to test a scientific process or concept not only helps to develop research skills like developing a hypothesis, analysis of results or generating a conclusion, but being actively involved in something can really help reinforce the theory.
Even if experiments do not go according to plan this is a valuable learning experience – life does not always go according to plan. Where things go wrong the important thing is to get students to think about why. What were the contributing factors? What would they do differently if they could do the experiment again?
We try to ensure that within our curriculum there are numerous opportunities for interactive learning by including different types of small-group teaching, practical classes and independent learning as outlined above.
Not only does this give students the chance to examine the topic under investigation from a variety of different angles, which acknowledges different learning styles, but it also provides them with a platform for communication with each other and with their lecturers/teachers.
We hope that this encourages them to become independent learners and inspires them to pursue a science-related career after they graduate. For schools, taking a more varied, interactive approach could do the same in encouraging more students to take the next step and study science at university.
We do a lot of outreach work with secondary schools to give pupils a flavour of our approach to teaching biological science, as well as giving them a taste of university life. Through schools visits and summer schools held at the college we want to raise the aspirations of the students we work with and encourage them to talk to our lecturers and students about what it is like to study science at university.
Of course, studying science at this higher level will always be different to the experience of studying a science at A level because of the higher level of learning and the facilities available at universities that are not feasible in schools.
However, it is not all about resources and facilities. Simply taking ideas from some of the learning techniques used at university level and applying them to smaller, more accessible experiments and scientific processes can have a big impact both on inspiring young people to study science and in preparing them for studying at university.
Dr Charlotte Lawson is course director for BSc biological and bioveterinary sciences at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London.