The social inequality of practical science at school

Imperial College London, Reach Out Lab, Thomas Angus
Imperial College London, Reach Out Lab, Thomas Angus

Unequal access to hands-on science experiences is just one example of how some students are disadvantaged during their schooling. Is philanthropic outreach the answer?

Fundamentally, science is about understanding how the world works. While science can be deeply theoretical, scientists still tend to rely on practical techniques for collecting data, creating models and explaining natural phenomena. Practical science is not limited to laboratory experiments, but also includes various methods of physical data collection – ranging from pond-dipping, aimed at understanding the invertebrates in an ecosystem, to using optical telescopes to observe the cosmos.

“Opportunities for hands-on science should be part of a well-balanced curriculum, for all students, aimed at building a scientifically literate society.”

Practical science education is important not only for introducing students to existing scientific theories, but also for training future scientists and promoting further discovery. Moreover, the skills that are developed through practical work, such as critical thinking and problem solving, are beneficial for all students, regardless of whether they eventually become scientists.

When students learn how to gather data in the course of their own practical work, they are likely to become more critical and gain a better understanding of how others collect, report or perhaps deliberately misrepresent data. Opportunities for hands-on science should be part of a well-balanced curriculum, for all students, aimed at building a scientifically literate society.

Frequent and varied practical science is essential to good education, and most schools provide students with at least some opportunities for practical work. However, in the UK, students from socio-economically deprived areas complete less practical science in school than their better-off peers. This unequal distribution of practical experiences increases the disadvantage suffered by students from deprived backgrounds.

“Teachers have told me that they cannot provide consistent practical, hands-on experiences at their schools because of a lack of equipment, a lack of lesson time or a lack of the knowledge needed to conduct specialized experiments.”

I’ve recently been working with teachers who bring their students to the Wohl Reach Out Lab (WROL). The WROL is Imperial College London’s dedicated outreach space, reserved solely for practical science activities with schoolchildren. The WROL provides students with the opportunity for practical work they wouldn’t otherwise be able to complete at school.

While the outstanding outreach work of the WROL provides visiting students with additional opportunities, I have to wonder: Why are these opportunities not being provided at school? Teachers have told me that they cannot provide consistent practical, hands-on experiences at their schools because of a lack of equipment, a lack of lesson time or a lack of the knowledge needed to conduct specialized experiments. State schools are effectively having to ration practical science education.

The WROL can provide some teachers with what they need, and its work is valuable in helping visiting students explore science further, but should we have to rely on universities to fill the gaps left by formal education? Doing so reflects a failure by the state to adequately fund schools and provide an equitable experience for all students.

“Adding practical science education to the wish list for state school funding may seem like a luxury, but science should not return to its origins as a subject reserved for the privileged elite.”

In an era of a seemingly never-ending funding crisis within UK state schools, in which school leaders are struggling to pay for even basic necessities, such as printing and glue sticks, it may seem untimely to call for expenditure on expensive science equipment. If we fail to act, however, practical science may go the way of the creative subjects and become the next victim of austerity.

Adding practical science education to the wish list for state school funding may seem like a luxury, but science should not return to its origins as a subject reserved for the privileged elite. All students are entitled to a practical science education and it should be funded accordingly.

EARLI 2019

The European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) is an international networking organisation for junior and senior researchers in education. Representing over 2000 members in more than 60 countries, EARLI is the biggest educational association in Europe.

In times of constant change, the future is a moving target – difficult to predict and prepare for. Yet, education is doing just that. At the 18th Biennial EARLI Conference and the accompanying 23rd Conference of the Junior Researchers of EARLI, researchers in learning and instruction from all over the world come together to discuss current research findings. In order to think tomorrow’s education and education research, it is crucial to relate new findings to what we already know and elaborate how this will help foster sustainable learning processes and navigate what is yet to come. EARLI 2019 will take place in Aachen, Germany, from August 12th to 16th, 2019. More information at EARLI.org

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