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Headlines Published on 07 February 2005

Title Blowing the science spark out!

In this, the Year of Physics, it is perhaps incongruous to read that European classrooms may be switching off students’ Bunsen burners in favour of teacher-centred experiments because of health and safety concerns which may not be founded.

Practical experiments inject life into potentially boring science subjects, something Italian kids learned at this EU-supported Science Week event. © Esciential (Science Week)
Practical experiments inject life into potentially boring science subjects, something Italian kids learned at this EU-supported Science Week event.
© Esciential (Science Week)
Evidence of this comes from a report on British science classrooms, where concern over health and safety issues is changing what should be an exciting and inspiring practical exercise into a droning lesson on how someone else does something. This is the gist of a recent report in the on-line magazine Spiked.

“A survey of teachers and scientists finds that everything from keeping snails to swabbing for cheek cells, running model steam engines to burning peanuts, is now being avoided because it is seen as too risky,” Josie Appleton reports in the Spiked’s science section. “The result is that children are being turned off science – with experts fearing for the next generation of chemists and physicists.”

This could be discouraging for policy-makers at all levels of government, including at the European level, who have been organising prizes, awareness-raising activities and communication campaigns to spark interest in physics, chemistry and other branches of science facing image problems.

The problem is teachers are wary of some sciences, such as physics or chemistry, especially when they have to monitor potentially volatile experiments with full classes. Biology teachers are apparently steering away from dissections, reports Spiked, due to worries about BSE and other infections. Something as simple as taking blood from a finger prick is generally avoided because of AIDS risks, it continues.

Case in point
drops in the number of science practicals have been observed by the UK Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). Teachers are doing the bare minimum to fulfil national curricula requirements, it notes. “Risk assessment procedures encourage teachers to stick to standardised experiments rather than try anything a bit different,” the report continues. And the result is that children's curiosity is dampened.

One science teacher in Birmingham (UK) quoted in the story says that he has noticed a “move away from experiments considered too risky”. Today, students tend to watch on as the teacher carries out an experiment, despite little evidence of risks and lawsuits.

Peter Borrows, director of the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services (CLEAPSS), told Spiked that school laboratories are largely safe places, quoting statistics going back to the 1960s which show that science causes only 0.8% of all serious pupil accidents in British schools, versus 60% incurred during physical education, and a full 1% in toilet and other facilities.

This means, out of some 4 to 5 000 serious accidents every year, only around 35 take place during science class, despite the millions of pupils spending several hours a week in science classrooms. And the fear of legal repercussions are unfounded as well. “Since 1975, three teachers have been sued successfully [in the UK]”, Borrows is quoted as saying. “And, to be blunt, they were nutters!”

The reasons for this shift in practice range from changes in teaching styles to changes in health and safety regulations, through to what one authority calls an atmosphere of “scaremongering” and “Chinese whispers”. Whoever, or whatever, is responsible for this situation, the fact of the matter is “science becomes about dead facts learnt out of a textbook, rather than live conclusions derived from testing and experiment”, a university chemistry professor concludes.

Source:  Press sources

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More information:

  • Taking the spark out of science (Spiked, 13 January 2005)

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