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. 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.

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