Science - Risk factor

Stepping into the unknown and allowing children to experiment in class always gets the best results, says Rebecca Edwards

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Pupils tell us that science is more interesting when they're allowed to take risks, without their hand being held. This doesn't necessarily mean they do dangerous experiments themselves instead of watching demonstrations or videos.

What they want is to feel that they are venturing into the unknown, in their practical work and in their thinking. They don't always want to feel that the result or answer they are heading for is something that is pre- determined and that they are only going through the motions of finding out.

So how can you make this work in lessons? As science teachers know, the idea of mixing chemicals usually makes Year 7 pupils' eyes light up. You could kick off Year 7 by letting them mix pairs from four carefully selected liquids that can provide coloured precipitates, fizzing and no obvious reaction at all.

This will help pupils learn about working safely, the importance of careful observation and recording, the uncertain nature of experiments where the conclusion is not always definite and, most importantly, discussing thoroughly what it means.

Young people say they find it easier to develop skills and understanding and learn things when they seem relevant. For them, this means the ways particular science skills and content connect with each other, how these fit into the subject as a whole, and how they relate to society as well as to them as individuals.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) website features an example of a key stage 2 teacher who harnessed pupils' love of a mystery by asking them to play detective with pictures of bird tracks. They had to work out what they thought had happened from the tracks and then she discussed with them how this related to thinking in science. There was no specific expected answer and pupils were able to relate their experience to collecting and interpreting evidence in science.

Pupils rise to the challenge of genuine research and schools are now working with the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) to research the viability of some of the millions of seeds stored there. This is not a simulation or a role-play, but research on behalf of the MSB. And because many of the seeds have yet to be classified, there is no use asking MSB what the right answer is for these experiments: it's the pupils' job to establish that.

MSB does not have enough people to do every experiment but has protocols so that schools can do them instead. Pupils are challenged by real scientific research, and they appreciate that it could benefit everyone on the planet.

Rebecca Edwards is adviser for science at the QCA.

More information

- Download the Mystery of the Disappearing Tracks curriculumcreativityindex.aspx

- Visit Save Our Seeds www.kew.orgmsbpsaveourseedsindex.html.

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