Science And Engagement Of Learners Outside The Classroom Education Essay

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This professional investigation is related to the nature of science engagement by high school students outside routine science lessons in the classroom. An analysis was conducted to find any significant correlation between social understanding of science in general and learners' interest in lessons. The study was conducted at a South Essex comprehensive school that had keystage 4 to keystage 5 students, but only on keystage 3 and 4 students. The results from the investigation indicate that there is a slightly higher engagement in Science in year 7 and the lowest in year 11. There is a slight increase in interest and engagement in year 10 after a small decline in year 9, possibly due to the reminder to start preparing for exams and the importance of a good grade in science which is a required (non-optional) subject. Overall, there was hardly any substantial engagement with the subject, with a very small proportion willing to study science at key stage 5.


The author would like to thank the professional and curriculum mentors, both at the Canterbury Christ Church Essex Campus and at the first school placement. They provided useful guidance and feedback on the investigation as well as requested assistance. In addition, the staff at the comprehensive school that provided assistance with the research that was conducted.



The word science is derived from the Latin word 'scientia' meaning knowledge and it is defined, in it simplest terms, as being knowledge attained through study or practice. It is a multidisciplinary subject that covers many topical and significant areas and provides an explanation of the universe and its constituents. The system used in scientific enquiry encompasses a method of observation and experimentation, whereby through trial and error as well as validation a theory is derived from analysis of results. This systematic and investigative technique of deduction is taught to school children from primary level, but only begins to be addressed in depth and with more emphasis at secondary level of education.

Science is widely acknowledged in public life as a means of improving living standards, quality of life and access to resources that allow for economical, social and physical development. This occurs through technological advancements and scientific awareness. Science has been a core subject since the Education Reform Act (1988) and is part of the resulting national curriculum that was introduced [DF09]. This means that it is compulsory from key stage 1 to key stage 4 (5-16 years). The purpose of the statutory curriculum - that has to be followed by all state maintained schools - is that it should establish an entitlement for all children and promote high standards. Thus, as science is a key component of modern society, it is a core subject. Nonetheless, science is a subject that has conventionally been considered in the public psyche as a laboratory enterprise for the last two centuries; thus, the scientific community has to identify how the public relates to science. In today's society, a new language of science and society is being encouraged with a fresh impetus towards dialogue and engagement.


The purpose of this study is to investigate the approach of secondary students to science in a wider context outside of the routine school lessons. This is considered by evaluating their environment outside science lessons (e.g. extracurricular activities), and how this relates to their engagement with science in the classroom. Therefore, their whole world view of science is analysed, and how it affects their understanding and performance in the subject.

Rationale for the research

In recent years there has been growing concern that the science curricula in schools are turning students off the subject. The result has been fewer pursuing science to degree level, with resulting shortages in industry and in teaching. In July 2004, the Royal Society, the UK's national academy for science, said science exams were making lessons boring and irrelevant and failing to prepare pupils for future careers and studies [BB05]. Public appraisals appear to indicate that a large proportion of science teachers and parents strongly believe that use of real life applications can help make science education more engaging for students. One example is provided by statistics from the OCR exam board, in an interview of 950 children aged 13 to 16 in England in 2005, where the results showed only 7% thought people working in the scientific field were "cool". The survey suggests some 51% of teenagers think science lessons are boring, confusing or difficult. The number of pupils choosing to study physics and chemistry at school and university level is falling. The children were asked if they would study science subjects if they were not compulsory. Some 45% said they would take biology, 32% chemistry, 29% physics and 19% combined science; but, 16% would not choose any of them [BB05]. This would appear to imply that real world activities can help encourage student interest in science education.

Over the years, the National curriculum which was developed to ensure children become successful, confident and responsible people has changed to reflect the times. In the current National Curriculum system, this is done using How Science Works {HSW}, where students learn the science behind everyday objects to make the science relatable and accessible. HSW is a strand of the renewed framework for secondary science that has been split into two significant areas of skills development. These are: explanations, arguments and decisions; and, practical and enquiry skills. Developing ideas and theories to explain the world is at the heart of HSW as it focuses on the critical analysis and linking of evidence to support and refute ideas.

Using case studies, questionnaires and with contributions from practitioners in science education, this study looks at what tools society provides learners to enable them to widen their scientific understanding and experience, and if the students are aware of them. The study will be conducted in a South Essex comprehensive, the author's placement school, as opportunity determined the choice. Questionnaires are used as they will provide anonymity as well as quantitative data. However, they will not provide qualitative data so the data will be used to carry out further investigation by carrying out informal interviews with small random groups of students.

Literature review

There is plenty of literature on how at-risk youth from certain backgrounds disengage from school [CO00]. Investigating how students could engage removes the focus from mainly academic achievement to processes involved in learning [TH02]. Bandura's Social Learning Theory (SLT) posits that people learn from one another, through imitation, observation and modelling [BA10]. Moreover, SLT explains human behaviour in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioural, and environmental influences. Therefore, this would suggest that learners require application of formal learning in the classroom to a wider social context in order to engage with the subject matter. This theory has often been seen as a link between behaviorist and cognitive learning theories as it constitutes of attention, memory, and motivation. These are the required provisos for effective modelling, where memory consists of retention and reproduction.

Current studies e.g. Collins and Osborne, 2000 [CH07] show that students' attitudes to school science lessons can be extremely negative, particularly if little practical work is conducted or the material is not connected to the personal interests of the students. Motivation; whereby students have a good reason to imitate. Attention; that is, a variety of factors affect the amount of attention students pay including distinctiveness, complexity and functional value. Individual's characteristics, such as, arousal level, perceptual set and past reinforcement, may also affect student attentiveness. Retention; that is, recalling what a student is attentive towards; this mainly consists of symbolic coding, mental images, cognitive organization, symbolic rehearsal and motor rehearsal. Reproduction; where an image of something is reproduced, this includes physical capabilities, and self-observation of reproduction. Therefore, SLT gives reasonable explanations of some students' behaviour towards learning, for example, in the case of student engagement outside the classroom, this would suggest moving beyond simple interaction with the subject matter away from simply theoretical analysis, to actual application, manipulation, adaptation of information and having real world models that they come across in day to day life.

This occurs in the classroom through scientific enquiry in lessons via the new How Science Works curriculum, which focuses on the critical analysis and linking of evidence to support or refute ideas and theories. Students are taught to appreciate how evidence comes from the collection and critical interpretation of both the main data and derived data and how evidence may be influenced by contexts such as culture, politics or ethics. This is an important factor of concern for the British government as Public Understanding of Science (PUS) enables public engagement with new technologies, future technologies and thus socio-economic development. The initial response of those within the scientific community to growing levels of public detachment and mistrust of science in the late twentieth century was to go on a mission to inform. Walter Bodmer's 1985 report for the Royal Society placed PUS firmly on the UK agenda and declared it a part of each scientist's professional responsibility to promote. This report gave way to a number of endeavours to help tackle the question of public ignorance. However, these initiatives depended upon an inadequate model that viewed the general public as a whole as uninformed and science as stagnant and communally explainable.

Social constructivism as the term is typically used in educational contexts recognizes that knowledge is constructed in the mind of the learner by the learner [SA92]. Constructivist models of learning are often compared to transmission models, whereby information is generally transferred from textbooks to students through the teacher. Even though the concept may appear extremely naive, and is hardly ever proposed as a practical description of learning, it has nevertheless been found to be an inherent conservative model that has traditionally directed teacher behaviour [TA09]. Constructivist approaches support the position held by many theorists that learners are not passive recipients of transmitted knowledge. It emphasises the active role students' play in acquiring knowledge personally and socially through engagement. The theory implies that this "building" process is aided through cooperative social interactions [DR86]. Likewise, it suggests that lecture style methods of teaching do not take best advantage of the unique characteristics of the educational environment, in which many students are engaged in a mutual effort to both master course content and to discover how to learn. The style of teaching by lecturing is ineffective for a large proportion of students. When cognitive load increases, the need for student engagement increases. The human mind has limitations on the rate and amount of new information it can accurately absorb and understand any strategy that attempts to transfer knowledge more or less directly from teacher to student. Students must actively build for themselves a workable understanding of sophisticated concepts, and must be engaged in developing their own higher-order thinking skills.

Kolb's (1984) Learning Styles Inventory {LSI} is arguably one of the most widely documented tools for measuring and analysing learning styles [EL04]. One reason why learning is ineffective that most trainee teachers are instructed upon is the potential mismatch between preferred learning styles and learning opportunities or tasks faced by students. Kolb identified four adaptive learning models, which are explained as follows: Concrete experience; Students respond to kinaesthetic elements of the experience and where new information is fed in through students' active experiences. Abstract concept; Students understand information conceptually; they passively think about new information and contrast this with other ideas. Active experimentation; Students learn by environmental manipulation by considering what they are doing and how to go about it. Reflective observation; Students learns by introspection and reflection, they passively consider events and learn the process of change [BI99]. These learning styles are the basis for other models which have been developed. They are used in schools to provide teachers with information to differentiate for different types of learners in the classroom and adapt their teaching styles to this and lesson planning as well. They are also relevant outside the classroom, as different types of learners will decipher information in various ways dependant on their environment and social setting including activities they participate in. For instance, running a club activity can be a useful way of enriching the curriculum taught in the classroom. Through giving students individual projects based on their interests and enthusiasms, they can be engaged in science in a way that feeds back into the conventional classroom. The usual after-school clubs, while typical of school environments, are not the only way of delivering club style activities. Fairs and other school run annual or periodic activities that are relatable and motivate interest in the subject could also be organised by schools.


Conceptual framework for the investigation

Classroom context

School context

Field trips outdoors



Peer groups

Social setting


Local resources

Student Characteristics

Figure 1 An illustration of the main elements of the investigation and probable relationships between them

The illustration above indicates the various possible environments that a learner is involved in and the resulting social interactions. Therefore, the study took this into account to design a model for the method of research that was used. This informed the method chosen for this investigation which was the use of questionnaire surveys. This method was chosen as it allows for a large sample size to be used with a smaller time scale. It also gives the participants of the investigation anonymity and confidentiality as questions requiring personal details were not asked, just 2 general questions on gender and year group. The questionnaire that is used is quantitative as the data produced can be analysed and measured quantifiably by attaching a value to the answers that the subjects provided, which is multiple choice questions with values added. The Questionnaire that was produced and handed out had 21 questions each with a maximum score of 5 and a minimum of 1. Therefore, the highest maximum score each student filling it out could have had would be 105 and the minimum 21. This was based on the 5 point Likert Scale that provides a range of 1 equal to Never and 5 equal to Always [TR06].

A pilot study using the questionnaires was conducted by using 5 local neighbourhood students, of 9, 10, 12, 13 and 14 years. Using the results and feedback given by these students as well as feedback from teachers and mentors, the language on the questionnaire was made simple and accessible due to the large number of EAL [1] students at the school. The questionnaires filled out by the 5 students provided a basis to improve the wording and structure of the questions to make them easier to understand for students with a lower reading age, and to remove any ambiguous or unstructured questions. Moreover, feedback from the teachers at school as well as mentors provided further improvements, including the removal of repetitive and unnecessary questions. The use of the pilot also provided an indication of a rough time scale for each questionnaire to be finished, and if the subjects would be comfortable with answering individual questions openly and honestly, in order to try and remove any anomalous results. Any questions thought to be open to bias or out of context with the research were removed.

The investigation was carried out at a comprehensive school in South Essex area. It is a large comprehensive with approximately 960 11-16 year olds and a small group of sixth form students. The survey was conducted on the 11- 16 students, that is, key stage 3 and 4. A random sample of approximately 100 students was chosen by conducting the research in 5 tutor groups which had on average, approximately 20 students each. The tutor groups at the comprehensive are include all year groups as they have 'vertical tutoring', where the idea is that the older students will act as models for the younger students. They also represent the school at a smaller scale, thus all categories of students, in terms of abilities and backgrounds are present to some extent in each group. A verbal instruction to answer each question as openly and honestly as possible was provided as well as assistance by 2 to 4 members of staff who were always present in the room during tutorials. These were the tutorial teachers or teaching assistants that were also the students' tutors. They monitored their students learning and progression as well as providing support, both academically and in terms of behaviour, in the school environment. They assisted with introductions, explanations of the survey and in general provided a sense of ease. They also knew the individual students who may have required additional assistance with access to language in the questions due to a lower reading age or EAL, as well as any other related reason.

The investigation went smoothly and students were highly cooperative. The results of the questionnaires were quantitative but did not provide information that could be analysed and evaluated qualitatively. Therefore, once the students became more familiar with the author and a rapport developed, some informal interviews were conducted to further investigate specific reasoning behind certain answer especially where a pattern was seen to develop in the answers. It also provided the students perspectives and therefore an indication of reasons for certain answers and removed any preclusions or personal judgements that would have been made to some extent. The hypothesis of the investigation was based on previous research, and the expected result from background research was for an observable disengagement as the students get older and become more aware of the social stereotypes.

Data Analysis

Using the questionnaire design described in the methodology, each complete questionnaire was given an average score out of 5. Thus, by totalling the score for all the questions then dividing by the total number of questions (21), an idea of interest in Science outside the class could be determined on a scale of 1 to 5. A high score would imply that the questioned subject had a greater level of positive interest in science outside the classroom, fostered by extracurricular activities and non classroom sources. The data was recorded in excel and the following summary table and graphs were produced to illustrate the information produced.

Table 1: Key data from Questionnaires used to plot Graph 1 below

Year Group

Lowest Value

Highest Value

Average for each gender

Average per year Group

year 7 females





year 7 males




year 8 females





year 8 males




year 9 females





year 9 males




year 10 females





year 10 males




year 11 females





year 11 males




The data that was collected in excel is summarised in table 1 above; column 1 is year groups, which are subdivided by gender, column 2 and 3 provides the range of the scores for each subdivision, column 4 the average score out of 5 for each subdivision (See appendix for full tabulated results). Finally, column 5 provides the main data that was being researched, which is the average score out of 5 for each year group. The picture provided at a glance is that overall, the students at the comprehensive lie in the middle range of the data and if rounded of, they appear to have some interest in science. This declines slightly at the end of key stage 3, increases sporadically in year 10 mainly for the male students, and then declines again. The range in values is highest for the year 7 students, and lowest in year 9. However, within genders it is highest in the year 7 males, but lowest in year 11 males. This data form table 1 above is illustrated in Graph 1 below where the bars indicate the range in values and the data is plotted for year groups rather than for each subdivision.

Graph 1 First Graph produced indicating the average scores per year group and the range is provided by the bars which indicate the lowest and highest values out of 5 for each year group

In a follow up graph that presents the data in 2 groups of continuous bar graphs (snapshot of continuous data), the year groups are separated into 2 categories by gender. Therefore, graph 2 below indicates the average score out of 5 per year group for both genders. The bars on the left represent the female students' population of the comprehensive school, whilst the bars on the right represent the male students. Thus the information that can be deduced from the graph below is that while the boys interest increments slightly after a small decline, the girls only seems to decline steadily over the years despite a slight increment in year 8. Therefore, whatever the unexpected variable in year 10 that gears up the male students interests, for example the preparation for examinations, it has little or no impact on the female students.

Graph 2 This graph shows the average scores out of 5 per year group for each gender for comparison of any variance between genders

The above sets of results indicate the students' interest and mind-set towards science, including non classroom based contexts and activities. The questions used measure the students' motivations and engagement as fostered by social and environmental interactions. Some examples of these include; how much access they have to scientific media at home, if they are involved in discussions regarding the usefulness of science and technology in their daily lives, how they relate to science in their everyday lives. A difference of 1 point on the Likert scale is quite substantial as it is a 5 point scale. Overall for both gender groups at the comprehensive school although science is seen as somehow important, most students do not seem to relate it to themselves. Generally, they have little interest in the subject outside the classroom.

Further analysis of these results was undertaken by carrying out informal interviews with groups of students of mixed academic ability. Typically, for the lower academic achievers, the answer to why they did not engage in science outside the classroom was because it was not seen as relevant and it was a 'boring' subject. Some suggested more exciting practical activities, whilst others claimed the content was irrelevant to their future careers. On trying to clarify this misconception, some students stated "Miss sounds like those students from A [2] Grammar School who go around talking about how science is so cool".

The higher ability students stated that science was 'boring' as well and also suggested more involving and exciting activities. In addition, they stated that although they were keen on performing well in the subject, they were unlikely to pursue it as they go on to A level education or key stage 5. This was because they did not feel drawn to the subject as they were not passionate about particular aspects of it. However, the sample size for the informal interviews was small and therefore the data cannot be generalised to the whole group but was used to build a clearer picture of the results.


The research indicates that the students at the comprehensive school are in general aware of the importance of science but do not see the significance or relevance of it in their daily lives. This is partly as a result of the lack of interaction with the subject outside ordinary lessons. One of the questions asked in the informal interview to the students is if the set up of an after school club would provide more interest for them. There was a mixture of responses, both positively and negatively inclined, but in general, there were quite a number of students who would attend if the proviso was made, therefore it was worth having. Moreover, as attendance would be by choice -as a student pointed out - then the initial interest is the students and as they felt a sense of independence they would be more receptive to the tasks or programme of the club. There was room for error on some of the questions as a small number of students did not realise that certain programmes, such as wildlife documentaries, were science based. This was despite this being explained during the time of the survey, nonetheless the chances of distraction as students were busy completing the questionnaire were high. There were also some chances of skewed data in another small group of students who may have wanted to please their tutor as he was a science teacher and may have thus been more inclined to show more interest in science outside the classroom.

Furthermore, students were generally found to have less interest in science outside school than indicated by the questionnaire, but only as a topic. When explaining the science they are using in their vocational subjects or those who were on work experience, they were slightly more interested. Nonetheless, it is difficult to quantify this level of interest or identify whether it would be self sustaining without a further study or follow up study. A large number of students do not engage with scientific principles and analytical or thought provoking discussions with their peers, family or social circles. They therefore do not develop the ability for logical thought intuitively, although they have the ability to do so to a great extent as was realised whilst trying to do so with them. However, it was a novel concept to them and not something they would frequently do. It was not considered the norm.

On the other hand, this study did not measure or account for the number of students in different types of schools ranging from independent schools to grammar schools or free schools. It also did not factor in the catchment area of the school, whereby there are a number of grammar schools in the area that skim off a large proportion of higher ability students. A pilot study of approximately 10 students from 2 nearby grammar school was initialised, however, as no follow up data could be retrieved, it was abandoned. Nonetheless, generally for those few students the pattern appeared to indicate much higher engagement outside the classroom. Investigation indicates that both of these schools have science based after school clubs and a number of related extra curricular activities for whole school participation, including partaking in more field trips. Another variable that was not taken into account was the students' cultural background, not just social background. Approximately 40% of the student population was EAL students, although some were highly proficient in English. This would affect the amount of time and acclimatisation to environment students would have had due to parental influence. Finally, as a science teacher, the investigation is biased by personal motivations to improve the outlook of science and this may have skewed the manner in which data was collected, especially during informal interviews.

Studies of how people learn show that active learning environments involving problem solving discussions with peers are more effective than traditional lectures. This is supported both by Kolb's learning styles and constructivism as ideas are reinforced through, for example, experience and reproduction. There is definitely a good argument that interesting lectures are efficient ways to elucidate curriculum content and that they may work quite well for some students. However, even the best lectures remain mainly in the territory of passive learning, and it is arguable that some students fare well in spite of the use of this approach, rather than because of it. Furthermore, the contention that if it works, then it should carry on being practiced, contradicts the results of a number of studies. They mostly indicate that a large proportion of students are not represented well by this conventional model, and may be held back by the "one size fits all" model of education, contributing to the demonstrated decrease in number of underrepresented groups in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths network {STEM} disciplines. Therefore, the use of the learners environment as shown in the conceptual framework illustrated using figure 1 above (in the literature review section) as support for the HSW model of the National curriculum in schools is more than likely to improve access to the information. Under the new English Baccalaureate presently being instituted, a return to science as a relevant 'academic' subject, with the vocational aspect being discouraged is occurring. Whether this will affect future uptake of science in further studies or create social divisions remains to be seen.

There are many initiatives the school could undertake to influence the parental involvement as well as students' social involvement in science. The Science in Society (SiS) programme is one such initiative. It is about public engagement with Science and Technology Facilities Council's {STFC} science and technology. Its aims are to stimulate and respond to research developments, to link STFC science and technology with schools and young people for the nation's STEM and skills agendas, to support researchers' public engagement work, and to develop the STFC laboratories and campuses as excellent technical sites for outreach and training programmes. The main target audiences are science-inclined public, young people aged 11-16, their teachers, new audiences not traditionally engaged with STFC science, and opinion formers such as Government, industry and Parliament [WO10]. With resources from organisations such as this, or by building links and networks to such organisation, the profile of science in the schools local community could be raised and thus engagement with science outside the everyday classroom activities by students.


Social and environmental perspectives in learning outside the classroom make an important contribution to formal education for pupils in many subjects, including science. There are a wide range of frameworks for non-classroom science learning that can be used with students, including using media resources, such as, television, internet, magazines and journals, amongst others. In addition, visits to certain places, including: botanic gardens, museums, science centres, zoos and aquariums, as well as other fieldwork activities. There are many other non-classroom based examples which can either be incorporated into the school calendar or carried out as extra curricular activities within or outside school buildings.

At the time of writing, the author has embarked on launching a STEM club at the school where the study was conducted. With the support of departmental staff and various members of school staff, it is hoped to be successful in building outside links. Field trips are usually organised well in advance, but as a practitioner, the objective is to do so as much as the school calendar will allow. In addition, building links within the community where students can participate and attend events that can builds their interest and self sustaining motivation.


There are numerous volumes of literature that address learning outside the classroom and many more on engagement with science. So far, due to time constrictions, scarce research was found that linked the ideas together. Future investigations would require additional time to seek more information and develop it further as this is an important area of research that appears to have been slightly overlooked, especially in technical subjects such as science and mathematics.