Do you remember the first time? | Opinion
My first science lesson remains etched in my memory some thirty years later. After a brief introduction to the importance of observation and experimentation, our teacher weighed a sheet of magnesium in a small crucible before lighting it and weighing the ashes again. He had gained weight rather than lost – which was quite unexpected for our nine-year-old minds. So we learned that combustion was the result of adding oxygen to magnesium. Especially during all of this, our teacher insisted that one of our students accompany him to the scale, to witness the weigh-in – and to make sure he was not cheating. Null in verba – take no one’s word for it – in action.
I’m not sure which learning outcome from this lesson had the greatest impact. We learned that a scientist’s most important instrument were his eyes – not the Bunsen burners our professor was curiously keen to show off. We’ve learned that hypotheses – whether things gain or lose weight when burned in this case – can be tested experimentally. And we’ve learned that you have to see the results for yourself.
It should be noted that in this memorable lesson – one of the many factors that led me on my way to a bachelor’s degree, diploma, doctorate, and a career in publishing in chemistry – I did not touch a single device. In fact, I can hardly remember the practical work I did during those early years of science lessons at school. With the well-intentioned aim of ensuring that today’s students have memorable hands-on experiences in their science education, we must remember that doing experiments for fun, unrelated to the material being learned, is simply not worth it. not worth it. And on the other side of the equation, a well-done demonstration or video, with a lot of interaction, can be just as or more powerful than a practice done by a student.
Thank goodness it does, because in the last 18 months of the pandemic, students around the world have been denied access to their school’s labs for long periods of time. As Clare Sansom reports in her article, ingenious teachers made up for that with demos, videos, online experiences, and even home experiences. Hopefully the next generation of chemists will recover from this setback, even more eager to step into their labs and hone their experimental skills.
But what about the next generation of teachers? The pandemic has also affected those at the start of their careers. The Royal Society of Chemistry interviewed trainees and newly qualified teachers in April this year, with worrying results. Almost 80% of those polled believed the pandemic had negatively affected their school placement experience, and about half felt unwilling to teach hands-on chemistry classes.
But what about the next generation of teachers? The pandemic has also affected those at the start of their careers. The Royal Society of Chemistry interviewed trainees and newly qualified teachers in April of this year, with worrying results (https://rsc.li/3iy1HV7). Almost 80% of those polled believed the pandemic had negatively affected their school placement experience, and about half felt unwilling to teach hands-on chemistry classes.
RSC calls on the UK government to fill this skills gap with £ 7million of practice-oriented professional development for early-career science teachers. It has also provided its own set of support and resources, including live online sessions on teaching practical chemistry, in addition to the many existing resources.
One would hope that it is obvious that a country cannot hope to produce a well-trained science workforce without well-trained and adequately resourced science teachers. And with a global pandemic, a climate crisis, and ever-increasing economic dependence on high-tech industries, such a workforce would be highly desirable. At £ 7million, the ‘wonder’ vaccine makers, drug developers and renewable fuels of the future sound like a bargain to me.