Experiments key to making science cool at school

Hands-on learning at the centre of plans to generate a new crop of technical youngsters
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The Independent Online

It lies behind the coolest gadgets, the latest technology, and just about every headline-grabbing medical discovery. But science (and scientists) still has an image problem in Britain. Now the Government is calling for young people to get involved in practical science, arguing that the country needs more skilled scientists if it is to compete in a hi-tech world.

"Science is one of our country's great strengths and the jobs of the future are increasingly going to be hi-tech and science based," said the Secretary of State for Schools, Ed Balls. "That's why we need all young people getting excited, doing experiments and learning about science in primary schools and going on to study science in more depth at secondary school."

Speaking ahead of the Cheltenham Science Festival, which opens on Wednesday, Mr Balls said: "Experiments teach children practical methods and skills and also how to test hypotheses, but they are also fun and challenging and make learning come alive."

Last year, the Government announced that it would be doubling its investment in science and maths, pumping £140m into the subjects over the next three years, and emphasising practical science. When key stage 3 testing of 14-year-olds was abolished last year, it was hoped that the change would allow teachers to make science more interactive and relevant.

In 2008, the number of students taking biology A-level reached a 10-year high, while the number of chemistry students increased to the highest level since 1997. But physics has seen a dramatic drop in popularity, with the number of A-level students falling by 18 per cent since 1998, and 17 university physics departments have closed.

"At school, science can be all about learning stuff that is already known," said Kathy Sykes, co-director of the Cheltenham Science Festival. "Science is about asking good questions. When I learnt science I thought that it was tedious. When I did science I thought it was great."

Well-known scientists such as Lord Winston and Alice Roberts will be among those showing off science experiments at the four-day festival.