Spark your students’ interest in science

My daughter was indignant to be rewarded by her primary school for reading at home six times in a week. The pleasure from her books, she told me, was reward itself. This got me thinking. In school science, do we focus on the intrinsic rewards of the subject itself, or are extrinsic rewards – achieving targets and improving grades – given greater prominence?

Of course target setting and monitoring progress are valuable strategies in our endeavour to maximise student attainment. But perhaps we should concentrate more on encouraging students to love our subject; to enjoy science. In the words of Isador Isaac Rabi, whose research led to the development of MRI instruments:

Science is an expression of the human spirit, which reaches every sphere of human culture. It gives an aim and meaning to existence as well as a knowledge, understanding, love, and admiration for the world. It gives a deeper meaning to morality and another dimension to aesthetics.

What can we do in the classroom to promote a hunger to study science for its own sake?

Firstly, let’s engender a sense of awe and wonder, a fascination with science itself, whether it be by examining the intricacies of cells through a microscope or viewing distant galaxies through a telescope. As a chemist, I never tire of students’ reactions to my favourite demonstrations – the drama of the whoosh bottle, the fizzing excitement of adding potassium to water, and the violet vapours accompanying the formation of aluminium iodide from its elements. Of course the challenge for students is to explain these phenomena – but surely the smells, sounds and sights of the laboratory provide at least some motivation for tackling this challenge with enthusiasm.

Not every topic has its spectacular practicals. This is where we can use context to motivate students. All spreads in Activate, and in Oxford’s offering for the new OCR Gateway GCSE specification, start with an engaging picture, question or statement to grab students’ attention: Why is the deep ocean dark? What makes bananas ripen? What causes acne?

Following a British study with twelve thousand 15-year-olds, Hampden-Thompson and Bennett (2013) report greater levels of student motivation and enjoyment in classrooms in which there were frequent references to the applications of science. So let us make the most of the countless opportunities to show how scientists solve problems and improve lives, whether it be by creating new medical treatments, developing less polluting fuels or improving mobile phone reception.

Finally, amidst the challenges and frustrations of school life, it is all too easy to forget the power of humour, laughter and good company in motivating students and helping them to enjoy their time in our classrooms. Can we put aside targets for a while, and do all we can to help our students (and ourselves!) enjoy our subject – and achieve highly as a result.


Gillian Hampden-Thompson & Judith Bennett (2013) Science Teaching and Learning Activities and Students’ Engagement in Science, International Journal of Science Education, 35:8, 1325-1343, DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2011.608093

Philippa Gardom Hulme has 15 years’ experience teaching secondary science, and is now a science tutor on the PGCE course at the University of Oxford. She is an experienced science textbook author and has written a number of textbooks for KS3, GCSE and IGCSE, including Activate Chemistry. Philippa will be speaking on assessment approaches for the new OCR Gateway (9-1)GCSE specifications at ASE Annual Conference 2016.