Virtual labs overcome chemistry practical phobia

16 February 2009

A new e-learning tool is set to banish teachers' fears about 'letting students loose' in the lab. 

The LabSkills schools Dynamic Lab Manual enables the user to carry out 'virtual' experiments, practise the techniques and - for the first time - make mistakes - all before they enter the classroom, meeting the call for more practical science support for teachers head on.  

LabSkills is being provided free to all chemistry teacher trainees, made possible by a joint Royal Society of Chemistry and Pfizer educational project, Discover Chemistry funding and collaboration with the University of Bristol.

The recent Ofsted 'Success in Science' report identified that schools that focus clearly on how science works - the practical and investigational aspects - are more successful at teaching the subject. Yet the learning of practical experimental skills is an area of science education in the UK that is under threat, due to concern over new teachers not being equipped with the same confidence to teach science practical in the way they did in the past.

Kate Bellingham, newly appointed as the National STEM Careers Co-ordinator (supporting the government's 10 year STEM programme), welcomes the resource: "As a former Tomorrow's World presenter and scientific experimenter, it was fun to just 'try it and see'. 

"With this software, I was able to 'blow up the lab' quite safely, learning how to avoid the same mistakes in reality! Practical scientific skills are so useful in many areas, and are vital to the chemists of the future. 

"As a former teacher myself, I know LabSkills will add an extremely valuable new dimension to the study of chemistry by helping to reinforce the importance of scientific rigour and of health and safety, while being informative and engaging."

All PGCE trainee chemistry teachers (over 500) are encouraged to use the materials for free while on school placements. They will also be invited to propose ideas on how they would incorporate the tool into their teaching. The 10 who offer the most innovative idea will win a permanent copy of LabSkills for their school. 

Dr Paul Hill, Chemistry teacher and head of e-learning at St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School , Bristol, has already used the resource: "LabSkills is a fantastically interactive tool that helps students come into the lab prepared and informed about the practical work they are about to carry out.  

"It helps students make the difficult link between theoretical chemistry and practical activities - a link that is too often missing!  I wish this type of tool had been available when I was doing my PGCE!"

Teacher access to LabSkills has been funded by RSC and Pfizer Limited via a joint initiative called Discover Chemistry. The aim of this educational partnership is to address the changing needs of the chemical industry in the UK, encouraging the most capable students into chemistry, and ensure that they are trained with the correct skills. 

Pfizer are providing up to 1million over a 3-5 year period to help support initiatives such as this virtual lab software, which is based on innovative best practice developed at the University of Bristol.  

Dr Tony Wood, Vice President and Worldwide Head of Medicinal Chemistry, Pfizer Global R&D, explains: "Discover Chemistry aims to capitalise on the excellent education work that many institutions and groups are developing. We bring their ideas and resources together to help expand successful schemes like LabSkills."

"In research-based companies such as Pfizer, there is a growing demand for scientists to have strong problem-solving and experimental capabilities. LabSkills could revolutionise the way practical chemistry is approached in schools. By encouraging students to prepare for their experimental work, it will help them to view practical chemistry as something much more than a recipe-following exercise. Through enhanced independence they will be better equipped to meet the future needs of industry."

Dr Wood continues: "Positive experiences in practical chemistry at school are key in influencing the paths of many would-be scientists. This is an opportunity that we must harness."

The Royal Society of Chemistry will host evaluation workshops over the coming few months for users to help identify gaps and improvements to the programme and ensure schools can make the best possible use of the resource.

Discover Chemistry

An RSC/Pfizer initiative to promote a life-long approach to education and develop skills that are vital to the future of the chemical industry

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