Practical science teaching software free to all state secondary schools

31 March 2010

The Royal Society of Chemistry is supplying free computer memory sticks, on request, to every state secondary school in the UK on which they will find a radical new virtual teaching tool to eradicate fear of performing laboratory experiments.

The new e-learning tool, Chemistry LabSkills, has been produced by Learning Science Ltd and Bristol ChemLabS (University of Bristol) and is being disseminated, through the Association for Science Education and the associated Getting Practical Programme, to about 4000 secondary schools for use in enhancing, but not replacing, the teaching of practical chemistry.

The memory sticks are being funded by the Training Development Agency for Teachers in an effort to support chemistry teachers and enhance practical science in the classroom.

"We want to ensure that the most appropriate staff are sent the memory stick, as schools are bombarded with materials from outside agencies and companies," said the Royal Society of Chemistry's project officer Lorna Thomson. "To that end we are aiming to meet as many science teachers as possible and to place the stick in their hands with a verbal introduction. However, we would also invite teachers to approach us directly and then we would be delighted to make the introduction to the system".

The new tool will, believes the Royal Society of Chemistry, meet two key objectives for increasing practical science in schools. Firstly, by getting students up to speed quickly and effectively with the background of the scientific approach to enquiry and how to carry out experiments, it will allow teachers to fit in more practical work. Additionally, by rehearsing key practical skills in a virtual environment before lab sessions, the tool will become instrumental in building student confidence in the laboratory.

Dr Richard Pike, Royal Society of Chemistry chief executive, said today: "This is an impressive and challenging undertaking but is well worth the effort because the problem we face from fear of experimentation is a significant one. We are aiming at nothing less than turning British pupils from this fear to enjoyment of experiments. If you are apprehensive you will not have confidence, and only by confidence can young scientists find their way into science-related careers which will help the UK lead the way in healthcare, climate change and renewable energy." 

Similarly, Annette Smith, CEO of the Association for Science Education (ASE) commented:  "ASE welcomes all good quality resources that support effective practical work in science and LabSkills does exactly that.  Students who explore their own practical skills in a safe and constructive environment, using this, will become more confident and competent scientists in the future."

Director of the National Science Learning Centre Professor Sir John Holman said: "Learning science without practicals is the equivalent of studying literature without books. It concerns me that, for a range of reasons, many teachers currently feel unable to dedicate as much time to practical work in the classroom as they would like. It is important that scarce laboratory time and resources are used to the best effect: practical work needs to be carefully planned so time is used well and genuine enquiry take place. I am impressed by Chemistry LabSkills because it helps prepare the ground so that effective practical work can take place, as well as improving students' confidence and capability."

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 with its corporate partner, Pfizer, launched the Discover Chemistry project in 2007. Pfizer provided 600,000 over a three-year period to help address the changing needs of the chemical industry in the UK, encouraging the most capable students into chemistry, and ensuring that they are imbued with the appropriate skills.

Initiatives such as this virtual lab software, which is based on innovative best practice developed at Bristol, are key to fulfilling these aims. 
The tool enables students to carry out 'virtual' experiments, practise the techniques, possibly making mistakes, before they enter the laboratory, meeting the call for more practical science support head on.  

An Ofsted report identified that schools focusing clearly on how science works - the practical and investigational aspects - are more successful at teaching the subject. Yet the learning of practical experimental skills in the UK has been under threat, due in part to concern over new teachers not being equipped with the same confidence to teach science practicals in the way they did in the past. To address the problem, in 2008 800 copies of LabSkills were made available to PGCE trainees to boost their own confidence in demonstrating practical chemistry. Then, last October about 40,000 chemistry students were given classroom access to the new system.  Feedback from both PGCE trainees and students was very encouraging, as shown in an independent evaluation by NFER.

Related Link


Discover LabSkills

Innovative practical chemistry software free to all UK secondary schools

Contact and Further Information

Dr Lorna Thomson
Discover Chemistry Project Officer
Education Department, Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BA
Tel: +44 (0)20 7440 3347

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Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BA
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