How to keep Key Stage 3 students switched on to chemistry

Open door with lightbulb on blackboard behind

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Now is the time to open students' minds to science careers

According to Robin Millar, University of York, 'For some time there has been concern about the teaching and learning of science at Key Stage 3, with research showing clearly that students' attitudes to science begin to wane between the ages of 11-14 in contrast to other subjects, which have a better outlook, and crucially this is the time students make serious career decisions'. Millar was speaking at a seminar, Teaching and learning science at Key Stage 3, organised by the Chemical Education Group (CEG) of the Salters' Institute of Industrial Chemistry, in London, in February.  

Addressing science at Key Stage 3

The new programme of study at Key Stage 3, coupled with the fact that the Government has recently shelved the mandatory tests at this key stage, presents teachers and educationalists with an opportunity to address the curriculum for this cohort to ensure that not only are students switched on to science at this age but they want to pursue science subjects into further education and employment.  

Millar invited the CEG group of academics, industrialists and other professionals with an interest in science education to take a look at what and how science, in particular chemistry, should be taught at Key Stage 3 from the point of view of the consumers, and asked, 'what sort of experience of chemistry would you like them to have this age?'. 

As background to the discussions, Millar outlined some of the main challenges facing the design of a curriculum at this stage, including, for example:  

  • introducing students to some fundamental scientific ideas on which later learning will depend; 
  • developing students' ability to do investigations to answer their own questions; 
  • giving students a sense of the career opportunities involving science; 
  • developing students' ability to reason from evidence; 
  • helping students to appreciate the impact of the applications of science on our lives and start to think about the issues that some of these developments raise. 

Great expectations

Elaine Wilson, University of Cambridge, said that, in her experience as a chemistry teacher, 11-year olds enter secondary school with great expectations about studying science, and chemistry in particular if they have been to open days where teachers and students put on impressive experiments. Their interests soon fade, she said, because many don't do practical work at this stage, at least none that is very different to what they did at primary school, and there is not enough time to grasp some of the challenging concepts. 'Teachers are working on a treadmill', she said, 'with the curriculum so tightly packed there is little time to digress. Although KS3 national tests have gone, teachers still use a lot of tests because the curriculum is delivered through short, quick modules. These require rote learning and recall, with no time for understanding the chemistry, which would ultimately lead to their enjoyment of the subject'.  

There was agreement among the participants that good practical work was important - a mixture of demos by teachers, as well as the opportunity for students to do their own experiments, linked to the concepts. But equally important, they agreed, was the need to build more time into the curriculum for students to understand some of the abstract and microscopic ideas of chemistry, which will be outside their experiences. 

It all came down to 'minds on' as well as 'hands on' opportunities, and time to digress and enrich.