Practical science has a global reach and appeal


As English schools consider downgrading practical science, John Baruch points out that other nations are rushing to include more.

England has a bizarre plan to downgrade the importance of practical science in schools. A consultation just closed by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation suggests that practical science and laboratory work should no longer contribute to the final mark for the A-level examination that students take at 18.

The move is especially odd given that other nations — Britain’s competitors — are waking up to the need to include more practical science in their education systems. And British scientists are helping them to do it. I am one of them.

These countries — China, Poland and Ireland among them — realize that practical work is not just an integral part of science and essential to understand how science works, it is the best route to give students the skills they will need to support technological innovation. China, especially, has ambitious plans here: officials are working to change the culture of its school system so that it recognizes and rewards practical skills.

Practical science is more than hands-on science. It challenges the student to understand the real world, to create ways to test that understanding and to grasp the significance of statistics and errors in their arguments.

I am an astronomer, and my subject has a major advantage when it comes to practical and hands-on experience. We can automate and offer it remotely. At a stroke, this solves one of the obstacles to practical science in schools across the world: that lab work is expensive and requires skilled teachers and laboratory technicians, which are in short supply. Practical astronomy is easier — given the right equipment.

The Universe travels over our heads every night, and the only requirement for practical work is a telescope. In the late 1980s, the UK astronomical community, tired of the tedious need to guide these large instruments by eye, decided to investigate robotic telescopes. I was awarded a research contract to prove the concept of a telescope that could work autonomously.

The result was the Bradford Robotic Telescope (BRT). Initially perched high in the Yorkshire Pennines, it was the world’s first fully automated instrument. Users submitted a list of objects they wished to observe and waited for the results to be returned to them by e-mail. Astronomers had priority, but the early years of the Internet allowed us to open up its use to thousands of others. We gave them free access to the instrument when the astronomers were not using it.

Written By: John Baruch
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  1. English schools consider downgrading practical science

    The work of a fifth column I bet. We have them in The Netherlands too, trying to undermine education at every corner.

  2. I find this very hard to believe; and I certainly can’t understand its purpose; unless it’s part of a National collective suicide pact.

  3. There is already a great poverty of practical skills amongst British applicants for British technology jobs. (In the recent past we found no suitable applicants and happily chose east European and Asian candidates with great success.)

    The ability to observe, record and document real world processes and experience all the problems associated with that makes the engineers and technicians we urgently need.

    More to the point, the simple reality of what is being learned can be exciting and inculcates the need to be ever observant. This is how discoveries are made. This is how we root our knowledge in experience.

    Barking mad.

  4. Well I guess it won’t be long before British students are as smart as American students in the sciences. This is appalling.

  5. Without supporting whatever unknown political motives may be behind this, I can’t see why so many think science is inherently ‘good’. Most so-called ‘education’ is targeted at getting young people to unthinkingly ‘join’ rather than examine the status quo. Think of it – the student is wholly rated according to his/her ability to regurgitate what is expected of them. It’s not about creatively examining the big picture of life. Science is not the search for ‘the new’ that it once was. It is now institutionalised and has lost touch with its roots as a branch of philosophy.
    Moreover, it is almost entirely – and increasingly – funded by business interests who do not seek knowledge and discovery for the betterment of humankind. Rather, the motive behind the funding of most scientific research is profit. For too long the scientist has been allowed to pose as some sort of innocent truth seeker without an agenda. Sadly we live in a world in which money has become of great importance and the scientist, like most of the rest of us, has to look in the mirror and face up to what is being done on the back of his work. From the nuclear bombs of ’45 to the farmers committing suicide as a result of Monsanto et al’s GMOs of today, we need to face up to the fact that science enables technology and technology sometimes does nasty stuff.
    I don’t see why students NEED to learn science and I could well understand why some would have some moral issues with choosing it as a career path. And just because religion is considered nasty in certain parts doesn’t mean that science can’t be too.
    Lastly, for all the science aficionados who champion science’s promise of solving our new problems associated with a collapsing biosphere… be quite clear about the fact that it is the affluent, ‘educated’ and technologically developed nations of this world that consume the goods and spew the pollution-making muck into the environment. Those ‘backward’ nations that science – in the hands of politicians – pretends it is going to help are not the problem. It is the nations WITH the science and the technologies to manufacture and consume that are the problem. Ironically, what science does tell us is that the world may only have decades left before the coming mass extinction event. And yet people say we need more of this science stuff…

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