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‘Learning by doing’ fuels science engagement

In a document titled, Empowering science teaching, the then assistant minister for science, Karen Andrews said this of STEM related subjects: “Teachers of these subjects are on the frontline in preparing our young people for the careers of the future, arming them with the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to become tomorrow’s scientists, researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs.”

She says that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines have never been more important to Australia’s future.

How does science education look in 2017?

With inquiry-based learning a buzz term (with good justification, considering futurists predict workers of tomorrow will need to be of the problem-solving variety), digital resources are more frequently the focus of science lessons.

The rise in university partnerships has delivered dial-an-expert style lesson content to many schools lucky (or perhaps prudent) enough to have brokered one of these arrangements. This may well be the way of the future, and an excellent way to bring expert knowledge, not to mention enthusiasm, to a student population with reportedly dwindling interest in science.

Perhaps one day, virtual reality will be an option, but for your average school science laboratory, that’s a long way off. There’s only so much a student can learn by watching, listening, and reading. The best science learning is done by doing, and to do this, equipment is needed.

Lab coats, test tubes, Bunsen burners; these are the symbols of legitimacy I remember when I transitioned from my primary school science class, littered with stencil paper, leaves and often mind-numbing work sheets. High school science opened me up to the proper setting for a budding scientist. Donning the uniform of lab coat and protective glasses signalled an entrée into scientific inquiry that felt much more official. We had arrived. We were mature enough to perform risky procedures. We had been assigned test tubes, coats, and safety glasses – we were scientists.

After a lesson in a proper science laboratory, I felt like science was mine; it was all of ours, and we could participate. There are commentators from within science who want that for primary aged students, especially against the backdrop of dwindling STEM engagement, and corroding science and maths confidence.

An article published on The Conversation, titled, ‘Primary school science education – is there a winning formula?’ emphasised the importance of engendering a love of science at a primary level.

The article quotes Brian Schmidt, Nobel Prize winner, Distinguished Professor, Australian National University, saying, “research indicates that if you do a bad job teaching kids science and maths in primary school it’s extraordinarily hard to get them back on track, no matter what you do in secondary school, and in university for that matter.”

Also quoted was Vaille Dawson, Professor, Science & Mathematics Education Centre, Curtin University: “Many of the big issues Australian society is going to be facing in the future are around science and technology, energy, resources and climate change. All of these require students to engage with science.”

Whether you manage a primary school looking to set up a science lab, or a high school with an existing lab looking to improve your kit, finding good quality, purpose-built equipment from a supplier that knows education is paramount.

Australian providers of science equipment will have ranges well-suited to the curricular demands of Australian classes at all levels. Common lab equipment includes glassware, such as pipettes, test tubes, beakers, and Petri dishes; and consumables such as cotton swabs, and gloves.

A variety of utensils may be required, such as forceps, clamps, rings, scissors, sterilised knives, and blades. Biological sciences will require dissecting kits, and a microscope, complemented by lenses of various magnifications.

Measuring paraphernalia will also feature, such as graduated cylinders, burettes, and pH test strips. Other items that may be required in a science lab include Bunsen burners, balances, chemicals, and corrosive/flammable liquid storage cabinets. An exhaustive list of possibilities will be available from your supplier.

A note on hazards

Science experiments must be done safely, and safety equipment required will include protective lab coats, safety goggles and gloves. Storage: All Australian schools are required to comply with the relevant Australian Standards for the storage of hazardous substances. These standards include AS1940 for Flammable Liquids, AS3780 for Corrosive Substances; AS2714 for Organic Peroxide, AS/NZ4452 for Pesticide; and AS/NZ 4452-Class 6 for Toxic Substances. Regulations exist for the storage, labelling, and reporting around hazardous substances. Regularly referring to  will ensure that your school remains compliant and staff members can be kept informed of safety requirements.

Suzy Barry

Suzy Barry is a freelance education writer and the former editor of School News, Australia.

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