The big questions we should all be asking about practical science

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By Dr Helen Cramman

Science is not short of big questions to ask: How did the universe begin? How did life on earth begin? What makes us human? I could go on. But even though there are plenty of big questions in science, we must not forget to ask the smaller, no less important questions to ensure that we are nurturing the future generations who will go on to ask and answer the big questions of their time.

Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) and School of Education are leading a nationwide Practical Work in Science Survey, seeking the views, opinions and experiences about practical work held by everyone teaching and supporting science in any secondary school or college within England and Scotland. Findings from the survey will provide evidence for consideration by all organisations active in science and education in the UK.

Every day of the week, teachers in classrooms across the world are teaching science to young (and, hopefully, curious) minds. Every one of those lessons will be different, simply by the fact that every class is made up of individuals, every one of them seeing the world in a slightly different way. But that sort of difference in experience is at the philosophical level, what about differences on a practical level?

I mean ‘practical’ in two ways:

  1. in the way that the lessons are practically organised
  2. in terms of practical work that goes on in science lessons.

I am interested in what the practicalities of practical science lessons are.

Why does this matter? It is all about basing decisions upon evidence (something which CEM have been encouraging for many years).

Having a deeper understanding of what practical science looks like in schools and colleges means that if changes are observed over time (or if nothing is seen to change over time), there is evidence which can be used to make more informed choices at every level, from those on the ground working with students every day, through to policy makers.

So, how are we hoping to evidence what practical science looks like in schools and colleges and measure changes over time?

Well, we are splitting our bigger question into 7 smaller ones:

  1. What types of activity make up practical work in a science lesson?
  2. How much time do students spend doing practical work in science in schools and colleges?
  3. What influences a school’s choice of what to teach within practical work in science lessons?
  4. What equipment, facilities and support do schools and colleges have to carry out practical science?
  5. How do school science budgets vary?
  6. How well prepared are students when they move on to their next stage of science education?
  7. How do all of these factors influence one another and do they vary with the age of the students, type of institution, location? If/how they change with time?

Of course, these are still meaty questions to tackle, so we have split these into bite-sized questions in our annual surveys and interviews which we are carrying out in schools, colleges and universities across England and Scotland (our thanks go out to more than 700 schools who completed the survey in the first year of the study).

For the second year of the study we are looking for even more heads of science and teachers in England and Scotland to tell us what practical science looks like in your schools and colleges.

Last year we were so pleased that so many technicians told us about laboratories and facilities, that this year we are giving technicians the year off, but will be back for their thoughts next year, in the final year of the study.

So, now my appeal to you. It really is very important for us to get responses from as many science staff as possible within a school as this provides us with much richer data that will enable us to build a clearer picture of the state of practical science, and if/how things are changing.

Your classroom is unique, which makes your response so interesting to us. So, please do fill in the survey and pass on the link to your colleagues.

Survey is Closed.

Plus, if you would like us to send a copy of the report on the first year of the study or if you have any questions about the study, please email

A little more about the study

The Practical Work in Science Survey is led by Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) and School of Education and is funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, with a contribution from the Wellcome Trust.

The project is part of an on-going programme of work by Gatsby, Wellcome and the Nuffield Foundation to understand and improve practical work in science education.

About the author

Helen Cramman is Research Contract Manager at CEM. Her research interests lie in STEM education and gender differences. Within these areas, Helen has managed projects relating to the development of CEM’s assessments, randomised control trials looking at the impact of assessment reporting, development of innovative assessments for the early years as well as large scale national surveys. Before joining CEM in 2011, Helen was a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Physics at Durham University.