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Why no lab time in son’s IB science class, Hong Kong mum wonders

My son’s great passion is science. He’s always doing experiments at home and attends an extracurricular club after school, but he’s disappointed his school hardly does practical work. He attends Year Five at an international school doing the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, which is sold to parents as being inquiry-based, yet science lessons seem to be mostly paper-based or research work. Surely young children need to have the chance to do hands-on experiments?

There’s something irresistable about putting on goggles and lighting a Bunsen burner, or mixing chemicals to make an exploding volcano. Practical science experiments certainly ignite the enthusiasm of most children. Research work and paper-based activities alone, however interesting, just don’t cut it.

However, many primary schools do not have the laboratories and scientific equipment needed to develop certain practical skills. Nevertheless, there are all sorts of science experiments that can be carried out. Physics experiments, for example, can be set up in the classroom, playground or surrounding environment: building structures out of straws and testing their strength and rigidity; gravity tests such as dropping different parachute designs from a height to see which land first; friction experiments using toy cars and ramps covered with different materials.

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Students could build electrical circuits, do simple melting and dissolving experiments, and study conduction. Simple chemistry in the classroom, such as the exploding volcano, is always a favourite. Biology, in the form of plant growth, is another popular activity within the school environment.

All of these experiments require prediction, observation and measuring skills – keys to becoming a competent scientist. Students may also need to produce graphs or charts to show their results clearly, or write a scientific report using the correct technical language to record and explain their findings, and make a conclusion. These skills will be built on when they take the subject further at secondary school, where facilities are more extensive.

Some areas of science are more suitable for research-based work and can be fascinating in their own way: studying the human body, health education, and classification of animals are good examples. So a mix of practical work and inquiry-based research is ideal for a young scientist. There may be a science coordinator at your son’s school who could talk you through the curriculum, or discuss it with his class teacher. I would be surprised if the IB curriculum does not provide some opportunities for practical work.

Natural science can be one of the best hands-on learning areas for primary school children. Schools can make good use of local places such as Kadoorie Farm, the Wetland Park, Mai Po Marshes and Hong Kong Park. Experts are usually on site to explain concepts, answer questions, and guide students in their observations.

Day trips to power stations or landfill sites can also be arranged. The Science Museum is excellent for learning about all sorts of concepts, and has a special hands-on area for children. Several organic farms around Hong Kong offer workshops giving children the chance to plant and harvest vegetables, and learn about the use of natural pesticides.

Some organisations run tailor-made environmental field trips which initiate experiential scientific learning outside the classroom. These programmes are often flexible and make relevant links to the school curriculum. They tend to be run by people who are passionate and extremely knowledgeable about their subjects.

Ark Eden, based on Lantau Island, is one of these organisations – workshops include organic farming, sustainable living, climate change, waste management and tree planting. It is a lot of fun and educates young people about environmental issues. Students can also experience the varied habitats of Pui O: the beach, fresh and salt water marshes, mangroves and the surrounding agricultural land. They can learn about the effects of pollution and the rapidly growing urban environment, and can identify local creatures including wild buffalo.

Through experiences like these, children start to realise that they can actually make a difference to the environment, learning that their actions do have an impact. Residential school camps, which make the most of Hong Kong’s country parks and varied terrain, can also be an effective vehicle, helping children from urban environments to simply learn about and enjoy nature.

Science comes in many forms. Continue to encourage your son to experiment with everyday objects at home. As some famous scientists have emphasised, we learn as much from scientific failures as we do from successes, and many important discoveries have been made by accident. Encourage his curiosity and questions – even if you don’t know the answers.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary school teacher