Wow factor

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Science teachers should take lessons in risk. Josie Appleton thinks we could all be much braver with experiments. Afterall, he who dares wins

Today's society is wary of taking risks. We are preoccupied by the possibility of disaster.

When accidents do occur, people are quick to head to the courts for compensation. Small wonder then that science teachers are steering clear of practical experiments that were once everyday practice.

Explosions such as the thermite reaction, or the reaction between potassium and water, once lit up chemistry lessons. New teachers seem more keen to use blackboard diagrams rather than play with fire and Year 8s.

Demonstrating Chemistry, a new programme on Teachers' TV, (check website for times seeks to give guidance for practicals.

One head of science featured says that "creativity and spectacle can be married with safe practice in the lab". She worries that science lessons are becoming dull, resulting in fewer pupils staying on for A-level.

The programme goes for visually impressive experiments. One shows a Jelly baby in the explosive process of oxidation, the reaction involved in respiration. Then there is the "burning tenner" experiment, where the teacher puts a Pounds 10 note in an ethanolwater mix and asks the class to predict whether it will burn (it doesn't, water keeps the temperature of ethanol below ignition point).

These are great ideas for experiments and the children were clearly impressed.

Many teachers are unsure about what they are allowed to do so they err on the side of caution. Encouragement from a government-funded channel could provide reassurance.

But there is a downside to the programme's approach. It's encouraging practicals, yes, but by intensive risk-management.

You're advised to "look at all the potential risks", and then talk through other possible risks with colleagues. Practise the experiment repeatedly before carrying it out in front of a class. This is the approach taken by CLEAPSS, the body that advises schools on science, and which was a consultant to Demonstrating Chemistry.

CLEAPSS laboratory handbooks tell teachers that they can perform an experiment, but then advises them to safeguard against all the things that may go wrong. By all means, try the burning peanut experiment but be aware of anyone with a nut allergy.

Instead of risk assessments, maybe a bit of perspective is needed. Science lessons are one of the safest places for children to be. According to statistics going back to the Sixties, only 0.8 per cent of all serious accidents at school occur in science, compared with 60 per cent in PE, and 1 per cent in cloakrooms.

Instead of encouraging a zest to experiment, isn't this just about wrapping professionals up in cotton wool?

Josie Appleton is a writer on cultural issues at

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