Contexts for practical work

Providing a context to why you are doing a particular activity is a great hook for students and ensures better engagement in practical work. It provides them with a reason to do what they are doing, and not just because it’s part of the curriculum they have to cover.

Setting practical work in contexts that are relevant to all students, including socio-economic, race, religion, gender and more, will make lessons more inclusive.
For example, one context that is often used when teaching about momentum is kicking a football. If students have an interest in football, then this would hook them in, but for a certain proportion of students, they couldn’t really care less! Then, you hear the age old question “How will this help me in life?”

An example of bringing in contexts might be asking students how they think astronauts can weigh themselves in space if they are ‘weightless’. We won’t go into the science here, but you could then discuss how springs are used, and highlight and then go on to look at Hooke’s Law. You would pick the focus of the practical work related to the context-based question, let’s say for this example it is measuring extension accurately. After this has been done, you could then get the students to use the equation to calculate the mass of an astronaut and see how close they can get.

Alternatively, you could start the lesson with a story on someone that was injured during a bungee jump. Then go on to look at Hooke’s Law and how different materials have different results. Taking the learning and applying it to a real situation, you could ask the students to write a safety guidance manual for a bungee jump operator.

Specific heat capacity is sometimes referred to as a ‘dull practical’, as students typically sit and record the temperature of a block of metal as it heats up over ten minutes. Starting this topic you could talk about ideas such as the sand and the sea heating up in hot countries. Walking on the sand in the middle of the day can burn your feet, but the water is still cool. Then at the end of the day the sand is cool, yet the water is warm… why might this be?

The important point is to use contexts that your students can relate to. You probably don’t want to use the sand and sea example above if your students live miles from the coast in northern England.

We discuss more on how to use relatable contexts in our three subject-specific Teaching Practical Science online courses.

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Can you share a context you have given when performing a practical, or one you plan on doing in the future. This will help each other build on ideas you can draw from in the future.

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This article is from the free online course:

Managing the Practical Classroom in Secondary School Science

National STEM Learning Centre