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Teaching Practical Science has never been more Important?

The UK needs more scientists, engineers and technicians if our knowledge economy is to flourish, and practical science shows students at first hand how scientists and technicians work. It engages students to follow science further through an academic or technical route and gives them practical skills and attitudes that will be valuable in their future careers.

Practical science is important for schools, not only because conducting experiments is a good way to learn scientific ideas and theories but it also provides opportunities to develop transferable skills such as team-work, resilience and analysis.

In recent years, with the introduction of new science GCSE and A levels, there has been concern that focus of schools on practical science could wane.

A new international study by the Gatsby foundation, aimed at school leaders, science teachers and technicians, highlights the key factors to consider when delivering practical science and the full article can be viewed here.

With the ever growing need for schools to perform well in exams, are practicals in science being neglected? In 2011, 97% of lab managers in Russell Group universities reported that incoming graduates are poorly equipped for their first year practical sessions.

But why is it so important to teach practical skills and what benefits can come from it?

  • Students find practical science engaging
  • Discover first hand through kinesthetic learning how things work
  • To learn from mistakes and how to avoid them next time
  • Develop independent learning skills in preparation for higher education
  • Gain stronger communication skills
  • Group learning helps prepare students for future career paths
  • Demonstrate and describe ethical, safe and skilful practical techniques appropriate for future career paths within the STEM sectors
  • Some facts can’t be taught without practical sessions

Important facts recommended in delivering great science practicals

In order for frequent practical lessons to become possible, each laboratory must first be accessible to both teachers and students, to accommodate group learning and different pedagogy learning styles.

Below are 10 recommended benchmarks on how to conduct good practical science lessons in the classroom, as found in the Gatsby report :


1. Planned Practical ScienceA school should have a written policy that explains to the teachers why practical lessons are important and what the outcomes should be achieved by teacher and students. The process of the policy should be deemed as important as the policy itself. • It should explain clearly the differences in practical science between different age groups
• Policy should include how SEND (special Educational Needs and Disabilities) should be included.
• The policy should be annually reviewed against practice
• The policy should include opportunities for students to explore science outside of the classroom; universities, outdoors, science centres etc…
2. Purposeful Practical ScienceTeachers should integrate other science learning activities so it is effective. Both teacher and students should have a full understanding of the purpose of any practical experiments. • Teacher and student should understand what is expected from each scientific activity
• Each teacher should communicate effectively how a practical should be introduced into the lesson plan and how to follow up results effectively
• SEND should be taken into consideration so that all students can participate in practical’s equally
3. Expert TeachersTeachers should have continuous specialist training in subjects; biology, chemistry, physics etc… and age range of the classrooms taught, to ensure the quality of teaching is upheld and teacher is confident in their ability to lead scientific activities. • Post-16 level, teachers should have a post-A level science qualification related to the subject they specialise in combined with the relevant pedagogical training.
• If teacher does not have post-16 level qualification, training must be offered in relation to subject to provide skills and knowledge to conduct practical work at a high level
• School should review teacher expertise annually, ensure teacher development is always a focus.
4. Frequent and varied practical scienceA 50/50 ratio should be adhered to for at least half of the science lessons taught should include practical’s either short or long. • On average, across the year at least half of all science lessons conducted should include practical’s either hands-on or teacher demonstrated
• Flexibility should be given to teachers by the school to conduct practical activities (at least 50 minutes) in the timetable.
5. Laboratory equipment and facilitiesEach school should provide teachers and students with enough laboratories and equipment to accommodate frequent levels of practical lessons• There should be enough lab space to accommodate all class sizes and practical activities
• The space should be flexible and allow individual/group participation
• Access to the necessary technology and facilities to analyse digital data
• There should be preparation space or spaces that allows for safe storage of chemicals and glassware
• Outdoor space should be accessible to activities
6. Technical supportScience departments should have enough support to carry out frequent science activities • Technicians within an average-highly populated school should have access to professional training and development programs
• A school that is of an average-high capacity should have a specialist technical expert on site.
7. Technology enhancementsTeachers should incorporate digital technology in the classroom but not to replace the real life practical experiments • Virtual reality environments should be used to broaden the horizon of subjects taught, but not to replace the overall physical learning experiences
• Teachers should have basic training and information provided to them before implementing the best ways to use technology in the classroom.
8. Investigative projectsStudents should have the opportunity to do open-ended and extensive investigative projects• If a student wishes to carry out extended research the school should be able to provide extra space to conduct this
9. Approaching risk Unnecessary risk aversion should not be the final reason as to why a practical lesson should be postponed • School should enforce teachers and technicians to have access to authoritative up-to-date guides and risk assessment modules
• Teachers and technicians must assess the risks and benefits to every practical prior to the experiment
10. Assessment of purpose Assessment of the class should include the students knowledge of the experiment, behaviour and skills used • Teachers should reflect on practical skills and knowledge the student showed when awarding grades
• Teachers should conduct frequent science practical’s when assessing the students ability to understand science as a subject.

Examples of laboratory classroom designs

At Innova we have worked with many schools, colleges and universities over the years creating inspirational science laboratories across all STEM subjects.

Key features of well designed practical laboratories are summarised in our case studies below:

Mendip – STEM Science Laboratory

Description of school: Mendip studio school, specialises in a wide range of vocational courses across a range of subjects including GCSE’s, BTec, EPQ (Extended Project Qualification), and A Levels to 300 of its students.
Brief: With an investment for a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) facility it was important for the studio school to create a learning environment that could engage students, enhance their practical skills and develop their attitude in order to prepare them for the world of work and future employers.
Layouts chosen: As flexibility is key for any lab design, Innova focused on clever space planning for the Genetics, Micro propagation and Physics laboratories which featured fixed benching and service pods providing the students and teachers the ability to work independently or in groups.
Benefits of layout: With plenty of perimeter storage to house specialist equipment and glassware needed to conduct practical experiments, means easy to set up, reduces clutter ensures students are focused on the task at hand.

To read more click here

Aberystwyth University – Practical Laboratory for the Department of Geography and Earth Science

Description of University: Aberystwyth University is well known for its post graduate teaching and learning facilities, providing students with the best environments and a high quality teaching faculties.

Brief: With over half a million pound investment into the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, the faculty was keen to upgrade their science laboratory to a cutting edge learning facility. The main challenge the university faced was the need to increase the levels of practical experiments taking place a week. With that in mind Innova created an engaging environment and one that could increase the number of practical’s from 30 to 44.

Layout chosen: Where the science lab was once difficult for the lecturer to manoeuvre, restricting teaching styles and practical work has now opened up the room to a multi-functional learning environment with row of fixed benching and perimeter units and benching, housing sinks and electrical services for students to carry out more practical’s working individually, in pairs or groups.

Benefits of layout: With the increase in room capacity and layout accommodating more storage options, everything can now be safely stored away, freeing up valuable space for more experiments, lecturing efficiency and freedom to adapt to new teaching styles, improving student concentration and learning.

To read this case study click here.

Headington School Science Laboratories

Description of school: Headington School is an independent girls’ school, founded in 1915. Over the last decade Headington has invested a significant amount of money in enhancing and creating state-of-the-art learning facilities for their students.

Brief: Science is a key strength at Headington as part of Innova’s brief it was important to develop the new science laboratories to 21st century learning environments to meet the needs of modern teaching and learning methods.

Layout and Benefit: Innova worked closely with the teaching staff throughout the design planning process, enabling us to get under the skin of the science behind their perfect lab .
As a result Innova’s wing layout design was specified for the chemistry labs to give teachers greater control of the learning environment whilst shortening communication lines, where as a pebble pod layout was more suited for Biology transforming it to a professional workspace, adapting to a range of curriculum requirements and teaching needs.

To read more click here

What are your views on what good looks like in practical science?


Do you have a laboratory refurbishment project in mind, or guidance on how to increase the level of practicals your school conducts?  Contact us on 0161 477 5300 or email