Practical science in the era of remote work

Written by Issac F, a secondary school Physics teacher at a distinguished London Grammar School and experienced Civil Engineer (BEng University of Bath).

Please contact to view his full profile and request his availability for Physics, Maths and Guitar tuition.

When Eratosthenes set out to determine Earth’s circumference in 240 B.C, he had a hypothesis. It was a good hypothesis: between Alexandria and Syene, the angle of the sun’s shadows were different by 1/50th of 360 degrees. So, the distance between Alexandria and Syene must be 1/50th of Earth’s circumference.

Eratosthenes set out to measure this distance without any modern scientific equipment. In lieu of such technology, he hired someone to walk the distance in as straight a line as possible, counting their steps as they went. No satellite data, no laboratory-precise equipment, no Google Maps. So how accurate were his results?

Eratosthenes was within 1% of the figure that scientists have since proven with a high degree of precision (24,901 miles, if you’re curious). His method was robust, his analysis rigorous. Really, that’s all you need for the beginnings of science. Because for all the (very reasonable) importance modern scientists place on using high-specification equipment, science is not about having the perfect laboratory; it is about the method. This method can be carried out anywhere, anytime, by anyone.

In the past two years, I have seen students suffer from a lack of experience in practical science. Covid-strict classrooms in which no hands-on experiments could be carried out; students who isolate, missing out on required practicals. Students who are interested in a career in science, but who have yet to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Schools have attempted to adapt to this new reality with admirable endeavours, but mixed success. Remote learning remains an area which needs improvement, as bridging that gap between theory and practice is vital to a student’s progress. All students require hands-on experience to take a theory from abstract to concrete, and keen students may use practical experiments as a pathway for exploration.

As a Physics teacher and tutor both in person and online, I have given a lot of thought to where I can help shore these gaps in learning. I find myself thinking of those first scientists – those without precision micrometers or atomic clocks. If the method and analyses are robust, surely the science can be valid too?

Having considered the specifications of exam boards, I believe almost every Physics practical at Key Stages 3 and 4 (and many at Key Stage 5) can be done safely at home, with some basic equipment found in most kitchens: elastic bands, a measuring jug, some string, a thermometer, etc. The most vital pieces of equipment are simple: a ruler and a timer.

For example, a school science lab, students learn Hooke’s law by examining the proportional relationship between Force and Extension with springs and Newtonmeters. This method can be easily adapted for remote learning using elastic bands, a ruler, and pens. In this adaptation, the student can learn much about the scientific method. Students gain more opportunity to find and discuss control variables, and evaluate how rigorous an experimental method is. Moreover, practice with this type of independent and adaptive work can benefit a student greatly as they get into A-Levels and beyond (when asking a teacher, “what do I do next?” can deduct points from their final grade).

Increasingly, browser-based technology has made the exploration of scientific theory that much more accessible to students. PhET interactive simulations, funded by a Nobel Laureate, allow students to build realistic and complex electric circuits, test projectile motion, resolve vectors, induce electromagnetism, and practice geometric optics. All of these simulations run on any standard internet browser, including on smartphones. Using these materials with some guidance, students can certainly gain the skills which they need for the exploration and understanding that is at the heart of science.

Science is not a set of standardised equipment. Science is not men in white coats, and it is most definitely not an expensive laboratory. Science is a method, and a collective effort. In this burgeoning era of remote work, we would do well to recognise that science can be done at home, by anyone, with a pencil case of equipment.

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