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Last Updated: Monday, 28 November 2005, 01:46 GMT
Science 'must teach experiments'
Bunsen burner
Experiments and practical learning increase enthusiasm, Nesta says
The UK's competitiveness could be threatened by a lack of practical science teaching, a report says.

The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts says experiments inspire young scientists.

But its survey of 510 science teachers found two thirds lacked time for experiments, while many said safety rules had put them off.

A previous survey found fear over pupil misbehaviour was the main reason many schools cancelled science experiments.

The government said a new curriculum in 2006 would address concerns over a lack of classroom time for practical experiments.

Lack of time

In Nesta's survey of secondary school science teachers, 87% said learning which allowed more experiments and scientific enquiry would have a significant impact on performance.

Almost two thirds said the biggest barrier to more scientific enquiry was lack of time within the curriculum.

But many had also decided against an experiment because they thought safety regulations prohibited it.

In a survey last year, carried out by the Save British Science campaign, more than half of heads of science said they had cancelled practical experiments because of the danger of injury from disruptive behaviour.

When pupils were likely to be behaving badly, the use of gas burners and acids was not an option, the survey had found.

Nesta chief executive Jonathan Kestenbaum said: "In a highly technological society such as ours the ability of learners to enquire and analyse is increasingly important.

"Scientific literacy now needs to take its place alongside general literacy and numeracy as a major part of the agenda to raise standards in schools."

Rote learning

More innovation in science teaching could make it more engaging and enjoyable for students, the report says.

"Too much teaching fails to convey what scientists regard as the intellectual discipline of science and the excitement of exploring the unknown."

It tends to convey a body of facts while neglecting the processes needed to discover them, the report continues.

And putting science in context can help narrow the achievement gap between boys and girls, it says, whereas an over-reliance on "traditional" forms of learning can lead to misleading impressions of what science is and rely on rote learning.

It said practical projects bring concepts to life and make them relevant for students - for example a whodunnit investigation based on forensic science and a project to develop a robot which makes mechanical systems more engaging for students.

The government should address misconceptions regarding risk, health and safety and potential litigation arising from science in schools, as well as allowing more opportunities to allow scientific enquiry, the report says.

New curriculum

It recommends cross-subject learning to draw on students' other interests, and that pupils need to be given more autonomy in the way they study, and the methods they use.

Confident teachers are needed to manage this autonomy, it adds.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education and Skills said concerns about practical science in schools were being addressed.

"There will be a new science curriculum in Sept 2006. This curriculum will place a strong emphasis on practical science.

"It is a vital part of work in science teaching. Through the national network of science learning centres we are ensuring science teachers have the skills and confidence to deliver inspiring practical science lessons."

A severe shortage of physics teachers could even lead to the subject dying out in schools, a recent report from the University of Buckingham said.

The number of students who took science GCSEs was actually up this year - though fewer students took the double science qualification - worth two GCSEs.

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