Is STEM necessary?

In the run up to the third annual Choosing Knowledge conference to be held at the Wellcome Collection, Euston Road, London on Saturday 17 February, we are publishing a series of blog post by session producers. This first piece by Jonathan Dingsdale, physics teacher and head of astronomy and electronics at ELSS, discusses the importance of practical lessons in physics.

Jonathan is producing the session ‘Is STEM necessary?’ at Choosing Knowledge

When I interviewed for my current position at ELSS, I received some praise that I found strange at the time. Having been through what I felt was a total disaster of an interview lesson, the Principle, David Perks, gave me a sideways look and told me I’d done the right thing. By including a practical element to my lesson, I had apparently immediately raised myself above the other candidate.

For me this was a given, why would a teacher not include a practical element in an interview lesson for a practical subject? Because Physics is, at its core, a practical subject. The whole point of the theoretical side of the subject is to explain the physical world and the interactions of objects within it. These theories are then proven or disproven through practical experimentation and observation. How can a student gain an understanding of the physical world without experimenting within it?

I now realise that teaching through practical work in Physics is a daunting prospect for some. The stress during lessons and organisational requirements can be off-putting for those who are not practiced in regularly running practical experiments and investigations. However I firmly believe that with practice it is not only possible to reduce these problems but can be far more beneficial to pupils than teaching with “safer” methods.

One of the aspects I have most enjoyed when teaching at ELSS is just how straight forward it is to produce an environment where pupils really do get the most out of practical work. In the past at other schools I have found myself cutting corners or reducing my expectations of how pupils will conduct themselves during an experiment, to ensure that the work is completed and the lesson moves smoothly. At ELSS, I can take the time to explain to pupils how the scientific method really should be carried out, demonstrating to them and insisting from them a standard of conduct that comes with a respect for the subject they are studying. Part of this comes from good behaviour management strategies and systems within the school to reduce disruption during lessons. However there is a certain level of maturity as Physicists that pupils demonstrate that feeds into this too. By the time pupils are in year 11, I regularly feel like I’m teaching students of an older age. Their respect for the subject content and the way they take seriously even group demonstrations or simple investigations comes from a certain comfort with the underlying physics, and means that by the time practical work is conducted, it truly is about experimentation and proof, instead of just having a go at a fun practical.

The best example of this all working as it should came 2 weeks ago when I taught a lesson on Ohm’s Law to a year 9 group. I set the lesson up as a simple investigation into current and voltage, and demonstrated how they would carry out the investigation themselves. They had been learning about circuit diagrams and components prior to this and it felt natural for them to have a go at using equipment to construct circuits and take measurements. By the end of the 30 minutes that followed, every pupil had produced a graph from their group’s data and calculated the gradient, with very little further input from myself. Despite the fact their results were some of the best data I have ever seen from this experiment, what impressed me most was what happened next. As I gave an explanation of resistance, a wave of light bulb moments cascaded across the room as the group realised Ohm’s Law instead of merely being told to learn the equation.

Johnathan can be contacted at

David Perks

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