Science - Hands up for hands-on

Primary pupils can be inspired by their own interactive labs

Andrea Sella

At primary school age, every child is a scientist: they ask a million difficult questions and try to figure out how stuff works. It is the time when they pick up the most important intellectual life skills, and learning is at its most exciting.

Learning so often comes from doing things. We imagine we know what speed is by reading about it. But until, as a child, we get on a go-kart, we have no real sense of the experience. And it is not until we try to build one that we get an idea of how such a contraption works.

What is missing from many primary schools is a lab, a workshop, a mental-adventure space where children can discover things for themselves. One solution may lie in the Lab_13 idea of Rick Hall, director of programmes at Ignite!, a centre that promotes creativity in learning.

Lab_13 is a network of eight laboratories in primary schools, managed by pupils but overseen by a "scientist-in-residence". Each lab is a place where children are able to build things such as rockets, periscopes, comets or modelling-dough electrical circuits; they can make meringues or a loaf of bread and look at them under a microscope; or they can create musical instruments out of vegetables and play them.

The children are learning in a hands-on way; and spending time in the space can be allocated as a reward.

Creating such a space can be done for a relatively modest sum by using under-utilised storage spaces, sourcing second-hand materials and involving the community in its construction.

The more serious issue is how to support an inventor or scientist in residence; ideally, it should be a scientifically or technically trained person who can help to guide the ideas of the children. One solution is to involve university students: for example, at University College London there are volunteers supported by the students' union.

Professor Andrea Sella is fellow in materials and inorganic chemistry at University College London. For more information, see

What else?

For out-of-this-world science activities, try Sarah Hughes' Mission to Mars practical.

Get students running around the classroom with jacqui1974's forces activity.

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Share your views on condensing key stage 3 into two years and taking a more thematic approach.

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Andrea Sella

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