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«Abstract: Over the last years, new approaches have been proposed to increase the quality of science education. Among them, laboratories that promote ...»

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Susanne Weßnigk1 and Manfred Euler1

IPN – Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of

Kiel,Olshausenstr. 62, 24118 Kiel, Germany

Abstract: Over the last years, new approaches have been proposed to increase the quality of

science education. Among them, laboratories that promote inquiry based learning by focusing on scientific methods play an important role. The labs are based on the idea that bringing students into contact with authentic research and development may improve the image of science. A negative perception of school science can be considered as one of the major causes for the decreasing percentage of young people majoring in science and technology. Empirical findings show an implicit association of the ‘hard’ sciences, especially physics, with difficulty, masculinity and heteronomy. Until now, very few investigations have explored ways how the image of physics of adolescent students can be improved.

The aim of this research is to determine the effects of hands-on, practical, cooperative laboratory-based inquiry activities on students’ views of science and technology. For this purpose, the development of key affective variables such as self concept, career orientation and the image of physics and chemistry are examined in the context of Baylab plastics, a recently founded laboratory in industry. In this lab students are given the opportunity to cooperate in groups to design and produce a plastic product within one day using state of the art technology for production modern testing equipment. The lab approach promotes many inquiry-based and learner led activities which foster a creative access to material science. The results show that the lab improves the students’ self concept as well as their image of science, especially in the domain of physics.

Keywords: image of science, inquiry-based learning, out-of-school laboratory, role of authentic science, technology laboratory


In many industrialized countries serious concerns have been raised over the status of science education and the decreasing interest of young people for science subjects. In order to react adequately to the economical, social and ecological challenges in an ever-changing world and to keep up the pace of innovation the increasing uptake of science and technology related studies and professions is considered necessary by the majority of industrialized countries.

The current practice of science education is under challenge. For instance, a high portion of scientifically competent students in Germany have little to no interest in science subjects (PISA Konsortium, 2008). Especially, physics has a negative image, associated with attributes such as abstract, dry, demanding and ambitious (Euler, 2001) and with difficult, masculine and heteronomous (Kessels et al., 2006). There are many reasons for the declining interest during adolescence, for example missing reference to everyday life and missing opportunities to engage in meaningful learning (Euler, 2009).

Kessels et al. (2006) define the image as common assumptions about the characteristics and contents of a subject. It is considered as a possible factor for the negative development of interest. Often students think lessons in physics offer fewer opportunities to create innovative ideas (Kessels et al., 2006). They see physics and chemistry as a collection of facts and do not see that discussing, debating and negotiating the meaning of concepts are important factors in the development of scientific knowledge (Driver et al., 1995). A negative image in connection with specific learning difficulties can be considered the major causes for the decreasing percentage of young people choosing science and technology for profession.

In order to promote students' interest and motivation for natural sciences and to increase the level of scientific literacy the European Commission recommends a more student oriented approach to education in the field of mathematics and science. In contrast to the prevailing traditional deductive teaching style, inductive methods like inquiry and experienced based learning are considered more appealing and cognitively activating (Gago, 2004). Inquirybased learning is regarded as a key factor for improving students’ interest and achievement in science (Rocard et al., 2007).

Innovative approaches to inquiry- and discovery-based learning can be implemented more easily in learning environments like out-of-school laboratories because they do not underlie curricular and syllabus restrictions of the conventional school system. Students can be involved in inspiring and activating learning contexts that are relevant for everyday life or touch upon the interaction of science, technology, economy, and social processes. Such learning laboratories that focus on authentic scientific or technological processes prove successful in increasing interest (Euler, 2009). Their program emphasizes on what students know about science and how they experience science and technology in their everyday life.

By contrast, teachers seem to focus more on science concepts (Rennie, 2007). Science education in school and out-of-school-settings can be viewed as “two components of one inclusive education system” (Bybee, 2001).

The present project focuses on the question whether an out-of-school-laboratory has the potential to improve students’ attitude towards science, especially the image of physics and chemistry. The empirical study is carried out in Baylab plastics, a school lab run by Bayer MaterialSience. This company is part of the Bayer Corporation and produces high performance plastics and polymers. Baylab plastics pursues an innovative and demanding approach to experience based learning in an authentic industry setting. In order to experience a working day in industry students are presented the challenge to develop, create and complete a modern lifestyle plastic product such as a case of a computer mouse, the frame of sports glasses or a plastic spoon. For this purpose they engage in the various facets of the actual production process from research to design and completion, working together in five different teams: Design, Research, Technology, Finance and Communication. The selection of the teams is guided by the students' interest.

In order to solve the challenging task, students have to deploy different skills in design, management, research and technology fields. For example, the research team has to test if the plastic granulate is dry enough for the production process or to check the quality of the product (e.g. examine if the plastic spoon is dishwasher safe). The technology team has to learn about the function of the extruding machine and run the production process. All groups have to become active, ask questions, identify problems and find solutions. Reflection and communication are indispensable for the group work and for the interaction between the groups. Thus, the program aims at experiencing creativity and the diversity of the different approaches in fulfilling complex, mutually dependent tasks in a collaborative endeavor.

RATIONALE Up to now only a few surveys have investigated ways improving the image of physics and chemistry; there has been no investigation in connection with out-of-school laboratories.

Amongst others this survey will determine the effectiveness of an innovative out-of-schoollaboratory on the image of ‘hard’ sciences.

METHODS The development of the image of physics and chemistry is accomplished through a semantic differential according to the CAEB study (Stahl & Bromme, 2007; CAEB: An instrument of measuring connotative aspects of epistemological beliefs). The scale of the current study corresponds to the CAEB scale, but applies different adjective pairs in part to adapt to the

special situation in the laboratory. It embraces seven pairs of adjectives on a six-step-scale:

important-unimportant; productive-unproductive; creative-uncreative; dynamic-static; openclosed; progressive-regressive; innovative-conservative. The image of physics respectively chemistry as a school subject and as sciences is differentiated.

17 classes were tested in a pre-post-follow-up survey with paper and pencil. Around 300 mainly 16-18 years old students got the first questionnaire a few days before visiting Baylab plastics (T1). The second one was handed out right after their visit (T2), and the third three months later (T3).

The results are presented on scale and item level.

–  –  –

Fig. 1: Development of the image of physics and chemistry as a school subject and as a science Moreover, both science subjects have a better image than the respective school subjects. The perception of the school subjects is developed and stabilized over many years. Presumably, it is influenced by the prevailing deductive teaching style. Apparently, this largely top-down transmissive and reproductive method conveys an image with a lower activity level. The students clearly differentiate between school and science subjects: the image of the sciences has a more positive connotation; the activity level is higher.

Comparing physics and chemistry, the image of chemistry gets higher scores. This is largely a result of the chemistry focus of the classes. As Baylab plastics is related with chemical industry, mostly chemically oriented teachers opt for visiting the lab with their classes. From this background it is interesting to note that the lab changes the image of physics more deeply than the image of chemistry. This may be due to the fact that the lab involves more physicsrelated activities (e.g. testing, quality control, technology) than anticipated by the visitors. The effect sizes are small to medium (T1 to T2: d=0.38 for physics as a school subject, d=0.43 for physics as a science, d=0.28 for chemistry as a school subject, d=0.43 for chemistry as a science).

The effects on item level are shown in Fig. 2 and Fig. 3. Especially, for the creative and dynamic related dimensions there is a strong shift of the images towards the positive at the end of the lab visit. For both sciences this effect is for long term. Furthermore, the improved image of physics as science remains stable for more than three months after the lab visit. This refers to the items productive, creative, dynamic, open and innovative. Similarly, the image of chemistry as a science improves significantly. However, a shift backwards to the initial image at T1 is obvious.

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Fig. 3: The image of chemistry as a school subject (A) and as a science (B), all items individual The results on scale level show more positive scores for the sciences. This can be replicated on item level for every single item. After the intervention the image of the school subjects starts to revert into direction of the first image at T1. Apparently the school subject cannot retain the improved image.

In summary, practical work in an industry context seem to affect the dynamic and creative related aspects of physics and chemistry. After visiting the Baylab plastics the students perceive the hard sciences as a more creative and dynamic field. The lab experience promotes far-reaching and partly sustainable changes of the image.


In addition to existing studies that investigated the development of interest after visiting an out-of-school-laboratory (for example Engeln, 2004; Pawek, 2009), this study investigates ways of changing the image of physics and chemistry both as a school and as a science subject. Baylab plastics fosters an active engagement with science and technology.

Practitioners from industry and students are brought together in an authentic science context and learning opportunities complementary to students’ school experience are provided. In this context new innovative approaches of experience-based learning in the work place are presented and discussed.

Selected results reveal a positive impact of Baylab plastics on the image of physics and chemistry. This learning laboratory significantly improves the image of physics and chemistry particularly with respect to the creative and dynamic dimensions with a stable long term effect especially for physics. Even single one-day visit at the lab is able to change stereotype views of the hard sciences. The results also reveal differences between the image of the school and science subjects. Apparently the school subjects cannot retain the improved image. Future studies should focus on how to profit from possible image changes in school.

As this very special learning experience in industry facilitates a significant image change it could serve as a model for further interventions. It is desirable that in the near future more activities along similar guiding lines may contribute to increase the attractiveness of professions related to science and technology and may help to reduce the lack of skilled personnel in science and technology related positions.

REFERENCES Bybee, R. W. (2001). Achieving scientific literacy: Strategies for insuring that free choice science education complements national formal science education efforts. In J. H. Falk (Ed.), Freechoice education: How we learn science outside of school. (pp. 44-63). New York: Teachers College Press.

Driver, R., Leach, J., Millar, R. & Scott, P. (1995). Young people’s image of science.

Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Engeln, K. (2004). Schülerlabors: Authentische und aktivierende Lernumgebung als Möglichkeit, Interesse an Naturwissenschaften und Technik zu wecken. [Out-of-school laboratories: authentic and activating environment as a possibility to raise interest for science and technology]. Berlin: Logos Verlag.

Euler, M. (2001). Lernen durch Experimentieren. [Learning by experimentation]. In U.

Ringelband, M. Prenzel & M. Euler (Eds.). Lernort Labor. Initiativen zur naturwissenschaftlichen Bildung zwischen Schule, Forschung und Wirtschaft. (pp. 13-42). Kiel: IPN.

Euler, M. (2009). Schülerlabore: Lernen durch Forschen und Entwickeln. [Learning by

research and development]. In R. Girwitz, P. Häußler & E. Kircher (Eds.). Physikdidaktik:

Theorie und Praxis. (pp. 799-818). Berlin: Springer.

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