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Bid to put the whizz-bang back into science lessons

Faulty assumptions and folk wisdom are surely the sort of thing science in schools is supposed to challenge.

So there is an irony in the fact that science teachers are having to respond to accusations about lessons which they say are misleading.

The suggestion is that science labs have lost their thrill, with schools in thrall to health and safety regulations which ban traditional methods of learning, such as messing about with chemicals and cutting open biology specimens.

Instead of stress-testing metal in the physics labs, many schools are happier to take the cheap and simple option of computer-based simulations, it has been claimed.

"The whole subject is awash with myths and misconceptions," says Gregor Steele of the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre (SSERC).

He was speaking ahead of a major science education conference in March at which SSERC will explore hands-on approaches to biology teaching. Mr Steele added: "We're looking forward to discussing the facts with teachers at the conference. Specifically, SSERC will highlight and explain how to work safely with materials of living origin; sampling blood, using saliva, keeping animals and the fascinating insights into the topic that carrying out a dissection can yield."

The annual conference of the Association for Science Education (ASE) is prioritising tackling the perception – which it claims is incorrect – that the "whizz-bang" element is increasingly hard to find in school science.

After the quango Education Scotland published a report on the sciences last autumn, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council expressed fears that lessons had become less exciting, while the teachers' union EIS said cost was partly behind an increasing use of computer simulations ahead of live experiments.

The fears are exaggerated, according to the conference organisers, who are organising workshops to demonstrate that hands-on science can still be delivered to pupils. They say some concerns have arisen because of misconceptions about safety rules among teachers themselves.

In some cases it is assumed something is banned nationally even though local authorities usually make any such decisions. An English science teaching body has put together a list of dozens of learning activities from using cans of custard powder to demonstrate explosions to dissecting rats, which are widely thought to be banned but in reality only need careful risk assessment.

Mr Steele adds: "'Compensation culture' is blamed for fearful school managers putting a stop to the high-octane, high-voltage activities that drew so many of us to science in the first place. Very little that was not banned decades ago is banned now and, if it is banned, then it's for a good reason."

Steuart Cuthbert, the ASE's Scottish field officer, agrees. Any restrictions on what science teachers can do can be in the interests of pupils, or of the teachers themselves, he adds.

The old practice of demonstrating the extraction of copper metal from copper sulphide, for instance, involved heating the chemical on asbestos tape. Even when the asbestos is replaced with a ceramic alternative, the process still gives off dangerous compounds hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide. "These are toxins. When we did this 40 years ago, sometimes you would have to clear the classroom it was so bad," he says. "If children are exposed to that once, it may not be a big deal, but for the teacher that can be a considerable health risk over your working life.

"We have a responsibility to look at methodology and reform bad practise. But that is different from being risk-averse."

"You can't remove every hazazrd but you can reduce the level of risk so that it's manageable."

The conference at Crieff Hydro Hotel from March 8-9 will provide suggestions for nursery, primary and secondary teachers on how to bring exciting and relevant science to life.

The changing curriculum makes an open, explorative approach to science lessons even more of a priority, Mr Cuthbert adds. "If one is doing Curriculum for Excellence according to the philosophy of it, then you should be responding to the child's own interests and the emphasis is on the teacher not to turn around to the child and say 'sorry, we can't do that'.

"Today's risk-averse and compensation-led culture could potentially put a damper on school science and it's essential that the facts of the matter are highlighted to ensure that this does not happen."

www.asescotland.org.uk/annual-conference.html.

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