The call of the outdoors

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Martin Braund and Michael Reiss argue for the revival of fieldwork.

One of us recently attended a reunion of students to whom he had taught biology in the sixth form of a large comprehensive school. Most of the original group had come to the reunion and a pleasing number had continued with biology in some form or other. There were teachers, biochemists, a doctor and even the warden of a large nature reserve in Canada. We got talking about old times and one topic kept resurfacing - "that wonderful week's fieldwork on the Hebridean island of Mingulay". It seems the experience was remembered and treasured by all, irrespective of their future careers, and was quoted as a key influence by those who had continued with biology.

Yet such fieldwork is in danger. Recent evidence provided by the Field Studies Council to a House of Commons Select Committee investigating the issue showed that biology fieldwork is becoming less common. We live in a more litigious society. Concerns about the rare disaster, pressures on time and the expense of travel and accommodation mean that fewer and fewer students are being taken on field trips. A week on a Hebridean island is now virtually unheard of.

However, our point is broader than bemoaning the lack of residential fieldwork. We believe that science education will be significantly improved if schools take more account of science outside the classroom.

Science educators in many countries are concerned that current provision in schools is often uninteresting, irrelevant and outdated; designed to educate a minority of future scientists, rather than equipping the majority with the scientific understanding, reasoning and literacy they require to engage as educated citizens in the 21st century.

In contrast to this, science in the informal sector - science museums, hands-on centres, zoos, botanical gardens, and so on - is often exciting, challenging and uplifting. At home, the advent of multi-channel television and the internet have spawned a series of quality sources of information about scientific issues of relevance to young people's lives. So the educational experience for learners at home and in the informal sector in science is frequently in stark contrast to what is on offer in schools.

Our view is that out-of-school contexts should be seen as complementary to formal schooling rather than as in competition with it. We see five main ways in which out-of-classroom experiences can add to and improve learning of science. It

* Can lead to an integration and contextualisation of scientific knowledge.

Visits to industrial sites have been found to improve students' (and teachers') knowledge of industrial processes, and this learning is long-term.

* Can provide extended practical work and the opportunity to engage in activity that would not be possible in the normal school laboratory. These include, for example, launching rockets, ecological surveys, observation of the night sky, large scale experiments of combustion.

* Can help inspire students by providing access to authentic materials and "big" science. Scientific collections in museums, botanic gardens and zoos provide opportunities for students to see and sometimes handle specimens and artefacts, raise questions about their origins and significance and place them within histories illustrating the development of technologies and scientific thought. By "big" science we mean the sort of science that requires large or sophisticated equipment (for example, radio telescopes, particle accelerators, electron microscopes, large-scale DNA sequencing equipment). A visit to an observatory, space centre or genome campus is an excellent way to give students an appreciation of "big" science.

* Can help maintain positive attitudes to science. All too often students enter secondary school enthusiastic about science and then lose this enthusiasm over the next five years. Connections with science gained outside school can have a deep and long-lasting impact, even affecting the choices people make later in their lives.

* Can be more extensive and thorough and provide more autonomy for learners. There are opportunities for students to take responsibility for themselves and others, for working in teams and for active consideration of the environment.

Science in UK secondary schools may be heading for a crisis. The enthusiasm for science on entry soon wears off and each year fewer and fewer students choose to study science subjects at higher levels. Science centres, museums, zoos, and so on are often judged by their ability to get learners to return to find out more. Compared with schools they are relatively successful at this. We believe that school science has much to learn from the ways in which these other places engage people with science.

Martin Braund is at the University of York and Michael Reiss is at the Institute of Education, University of London. Their edited volume, Learning Science Outside the Classroom (2004) has just been published (RoutledgeFalmer pound;19.99)

Getting Going

* If you have never taken students on a field trip, go on one with colleagues (perhaps in geography, foreign languages or music) who have.

* Make full use of your school grounds. In the primary school, gradually develop the area so that it is an inviting space with good seating and areas of vegetation as well as play areas. In the secondary school, use school grounds for biology (compare the insects and plants in areas with different amounts of vegetation), chemistry (do a chemistry trail round the school to see the effects of acid rain on different types of rock, rusting, and so on) and physics (determine the speed of sound).

* Once a term, vow to get students out of the classroom, even if only for 45 minutes.

* Bring science into the classroom via the internet, television and visiting scientists.

* Strive to make the science that students engage in authentic and relevant. Give them autonomy in their learning and help them to see the value in understanding science.

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