Science practicals during Covid-19

From a science technician’s point of view, this new term is shaping up to be a peculiarly challenging one. The ongoing pandemic has brought about strict rules concerning the cleaning and use of scientific equipment in schools, but us science staff are still determined to provide students with great practical experiences. 

Of course we are: practicals are our subject’s most precious secret weapon.

How can we make a room of teenagers care about identifying potassium ions in a salt? By making dramatic lilac flames, that’s how. Whereas other teachers must rely on storytelling and pupils’ imaginations to conjure the royal court of Henry VIII or Homer’s Troy, in science we can simply give a student a Bunsen Burner and a spray bottle of chemicals and watch exhilarating (if sometimes worryingly hazardous) learning ensue. Practical science makes real otherwise abstract and complex concepts and ignites the passion of future scientists.

So, in the middle of a pandemic – with all the restrictions on practical provision – how can we make our lessons memorable and ensure students develop the practical skills so essential for future study?

First and foremost, with a little adaptation it is still possible to do many practicals. The entire department should familiarise themselves with the current CLEAPSS guidance (GL343) and determine what will and will not be feasible. Due to rules on “meticulously” cleaning and quarantining equipment, the number of practicals in a given week will almost certainly have to be reduced, but even then, there is often still scope for teacher demos.

A teacher demo requires significantly fewer resources than a full class practical. There are even situations when they can be more effective: for instance, when demonstrating more methodologically complex processes. Instead of getting bogged down in the fine details of a thirty-step “recipe”, students are freer to appreciate the experiment as a whole – to see the woods and not just the trees.

Inevitably, there will be situations where even a demo is not possible. In these instances, teachers and technicians could collaborate to create a video demo instead. This could be tailored to the class, featuring as many lingering close-ups on specific steps as the teacher feels necessary to make clear a point with which the class has struggled.

Finally, why not consider setting practical homework? When science experiments are confined to the lab environment, students can find it difficult to extrapolate that spirit of scientific enquiry to the wider world. A lot of scientific principles can be explored without specialist equipment: for example, why not ask students to hypothesise whether an ice cube will melt faster on a metal or plastic surface, before testing their theory out? Or use the slow-motion video function on their phone to calculate acceleration due to gravity? Countless more fantastic examples can be found online, though make sure you check for suitability first. Not every home will have easy access to certain items.

Students can even practise basic lab skills at home. Though many chemists would break social distancing rules to slap you should you dare reduce their field to “baking”, a home assignment like “bake a cake” could yield great benefits. A recent Nature article1 points out many, including practice following written instructions, selecting appropriate equipment, and making precise measurements. Additionally, in a world where many students will have easy access to a digital camera, they could provide photographs of their workstation to prove who made the least mess. It’s never too early to save your department money and technician time by cultivating tidy students!

Though we will be busier than ever before, technicians are always excited by new ideas for practical science. Find time to discuss yours and they will almost certainly have many more fantastic tips of their own. Given enough planning and the necessary resources, there is no reason for any student to be robbed of the opportunity to experience practical science during even these most unusual times.

Ian Bowkett graduated from Keele University with a degree in Physics and Music Tech in 2009. 

He has worked as a school science technician for nine years and is currently Senior Science Technician at King Solomon Academy.