“Doing Science” – Hands on Learning

One of the great tensions in Science and Science education is between the empirical and rational approaches to discovery and learning.  The empirical approach underpins the very nature of Scientific Knowledge, based upon verifiable observations and appropriately designed experimentation to test ideas.  A very fashionable cliché of late is that decisions in many spheres of our society are “evidence based” – Science has always been evidence based!  The rational approach stresses that knowledge and understanding comes through the generation of new ideas and explanations through logical analysis and thinking.  In reality, good Science demands the application of both approaches.

Progress in Science has always required the synthesis of these two aspects of scientific thinking.  An over-emphasis of one at the neglect of the other can become a significant weakness.  Nonetheless, the history of scientific discovery is filled with examples of individuals who made an enormous contribution despite their personal passion for one approach over the other.  Einstein stands as a giant of scientific understanding and explanation.  It is difficult to over-estimate the significance of his contributions to the progress in Science over the past century.  However, he depended on others to provide the empirical evidence that set his mind pondering the imponderable and also to confirm the implications of his revolutionary ideas.

In Science education as well, there is a strong temptation to lean too heavily on a rational approach to acquiring knowledge and understanding.  This is especially so, given the dominant role of performance in examinations and assessment tasks.  In addition, providing the opportunity for Science students to gain a rich first-hand experience of genuine experimentally-based investigations is highly resource and time intensive.  Unfortunately, our increasingly “virtual” world has to some extent produced in our secondary Science students a diminished appreciation of the true value of first hand investigations and empirical evidence in real Science.

At Trinity, our students have the real privilege of learning the vast majority of their Science in a laboratory and not a classroom, as well as through our “Trinity Science Investigators” co-curricular activity.  Indeed, our new Field Studies Centre at Woollamia on the South Coast has already provided, and will continue to, opportunities for first hand investigations to be carried out “in the field”.  This means that Science students at Trinity are not only well prepared to excel under examination conditions but also have a wealth of hands-on experience of Science.  This, I firmly believe, gives them a significant advantage.  In fact, the knowledge and understanding contained in the various Science curricula is most readily understood when the underpinning empirical data is seen and experienced first hand.  For this reason, our Science Assessment Tasks at Trinity address not only knowledge and understanding, but also practical scientific and laboratory skills, and increasingly so from Year 7 through to Year 12.

Both the International Baccalaureate, as well as the new HSC Stage 6 Science Courses that will commence in the coming academic year (2018), place significant value on students developing the skills of designing experiments and investigations to test a hypothesis, evaluating the collected data against the stated aim of the investigation, and communicating their explanations of the data.  In fact, the new Stage 6 Science Courses all include a mandatory Assessment Task called a “Depth Study”.  This will require students to investigate an area of a science in depth, and demonstrate their scientific skills in questioning and collecting data, as well as evaluating and communicating their findings.

To this end, it is important that students in all years of Science approach practical activities in the laboratory as more than just “play time” or mindlessly following a method.  Experiments and practical activities in class are fundamental to strengthening the scientific understanding of every student who takes the time to carefully reflect on both the methodology and the data in front of him.  To experience Science as well as to learn about Science is essential for a true education in Science.  This is the expectation and goal that the Science Staff at Trinity have for each of our boys.

So the next time your Science teacher asks you to discuss your observations from an experiment, and reflect on the implications of what you have observed, try and articulate exactly what you think are the reasons for your observations and measurements – don’t just write down “I had fun doing the experiment” or “I proved the aim”!

Dr Timothy Barden | Dean of Science