Then and Now


When The Biologist received an article from a member recollecting his science education at grammar school in the 1950s, we decided to compare and contrast his experience with that of a pupil studying biology in 2017

The Biologist Vol 64(1) p19-21

- Cedric Richmond FRSB, Yardley Grammar School, Birmingham, 1953–1960

On the cusp of the iconic 1960s, I was baptised into grammar school biology in Birmingham, a city known for grand Victorian engineering rather than the more genteel biological sciences. All natural sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) were taught separately and with theatrical and intimate flamboyance. We Yardleians, boys and girls, were assaulted with a sensory experience that brought science to life.

Today, would first-formers and fifth-formers alike be subjected to a begowned chemistry teacher nonchalantly applying two searing, roaring Bunsen burners to a retort flask full of sulphur? We gathered around in our green blazers and ties, and when the choking fumes hit the air, we retreated. Health and safety had little place in our laboratories – we didn't wear goggles or lab coats. When the whole retort flask suddenly shattered (as it did), we recoiled, agog at the chemistry taking place before our stinging eyes.

This approach also prevailed across biology and physics. 'Experiment', 'Apparatus', 'Method', 'Result' and 'Conclusion' filled our laboratory notebooks for five years up to GCE O level. Endless notes (most dictated at speed) gave us the respective theory behind our practicals: a total of more than 150 experiments across the three disciplines, of which biology accounted for 45 (with a few class demonstrations where more expensive apparatus was required).

A small sample from my laboratory notebooks is as follows: "Experiment to show the action of the diaphragm in breathing", "to show the conditions for Pepsin to act", "to show the response of maggots to light", "to show that maggots give out carbon dioxide", "a method of testing a green leaf for starch", "to find out whether chlorophyll is needed for starch formation", "to find out whether oxygen is produced by green plants in the light", "to show transpiration from a leafy twig", "to show absorption of water through root hairs", "to show that human respiration increases the temperature of the air" etc.

Our teachers generally wore black gowns and, on special occasions, mortar boards.

Biology was taught in a classic, large laboratory with a door leading into a glass conservatory that contained a variety of botanical specimens. If our chemistry laboratory was a sulphide-scented theatre of delight, the biology laboratory was redolent of Victorian plant collectors and the pioneers of natural history, anatomy and medicine: glass-cased kidneys, birds, voles and hearts preserved for study and contemplation. The vast, dark-oak benches with deep, white ceramic sinks and curving metal taps completed the experimental promise and the ambience of discovery.

Perhaps predictably, a significant portion of the taught biology involved morphology and anatomy, both macro and micro, human and botanical.

Each pupil was given textbooks that covered the respective syllabus for every subject and we retained these throughout the five years up to GCE O level.

We derived the simple laws of the material, human and biological universe with remarkably basic apparatus: glass beakers, bell jars, desiccators, conical flasks, test tubes, glass funnels, measuring cylinders, wooden metre rulers, beehive shelves, glass troughs, Bunsen burners, rubber tubing, mercury-in-glass thermometers, basic inorganic chemicals and common biological specimens, such as groundsel, green leaves, maggots and potatoes.

This short vignette is not intended to be social history, but it is difficult to avoid the observation that, in the post-war decades, we were literally exposed to real science and real biology. We smelled it, touched it, experimented with it and thereby understood it.

Putting barriers of distance between the practical and sensory experience of science (biology and the biosphere in particular) is no way to encourage young, potential biologists/scientists. Practical science completely enthused me – I left school with either human biology or botanical science as non-negotiable career goals.

I became a biomedical scientist and worked in analytical clinical biochemistry in the NHS and, later, in biomedical research at a university medical school.

 - Annabell Shaw, Magdalen College School, Brackley, 2010–2016

In lower school, I would regularly enter the classroom to the excitement of practical equipment lined up at the back.

Optical microscopes, Bunsen burners or quadrats were the most common tools for simple practical lessons, which included identifying the cells in a leaf, observing the colour of flame with which different elements burn, and investigating wildlife in the school field. There would always be some form of risk assessment carried out beforehand and we could soon recite the health and safety rules laid out by the teachers: lab coats, safety goggles, clear desks and chairs tucked in, to name a few.

When I reached my A levels, the frequency of practical learning decreased due to the vast amount of theory we were required to learn for exams.

However, the practical investigations we did carry out were fascinating, complex and at the cutting edge of school science. I was among the first students in our school to carry out genetic modification in the classroom. We transformed and cultured colonies of Escherichia coli bacteria to be resistant to the antibiotic ampicillin and to fluoresce green under UV light.

Each stage had to be carried out with the utmost precision and we had to be careful not to contaminate the control samples. The first step was to disperse the colonies through a solution of calcium chloride contained within a microtube.

We then added plasmids that had been prepared by a biotechnology company to contain the gene that corresponds to ampicillin resistance, as well as the GPF gene, taken from jellyfish, that is responsible for a fluorescent protein. We heat-shocked the suspension using ice and hot water baths, which, along with the calcium ions, helped the bacteria to take up the plasmid DNA due to an increase in membrane permeability.

We used micropipettes to add a nutrient broth that, when incubated at room temperature, allowed the transformed bacteria to express the enzyme responsible for ampicillin resistance.

We spread the suspension onto an agar plate containing ampicillin to eliminate bacteria that were not transformed, and added a sugar that helps the fluorescent protein to be expressed.

It is remarkable how widely available resources such as these are becoming, giving students the opportunity to try out methods that could only previously be done in a professional lab.

However, a typical biology lesson is quite different, beginning with a PowerPoint presentation by the teacher to cover content and revolving mainly around note-taking, worksheets and exam questions.

Each student uses their own textbook or revision guide for the majority of class work, with online resources such as videos and diagrams used to fill in any gaps or explain ideas in a different way. The volume and diversity of internet resources gives students today a huge advantage, as they can access information on any topic in many different forms, really deepening their understanding of the subject.
Science labs are slightly different from regular classrooms.

There are still large whiteboards at the front of the room on which the teacher can write, draw or project PowerPoint presentations; walls covered in displays of students' work and posters; and various models (for example, a large ladder demonstrating the structure of a double helix stood in the corner of my biology lab). However, we all sit at tall workbenches with metal stalls instead of chairs, making it feel more like a lab. There are cupboards full of equipment, such as Bunsen burners, underneath benches around the edge of the room with gas taps and ceramic sinks for practical work.

I had always been interested in science, but it wasn't until GCSEs that I realised how complex and fascinating biology is in particular. It is taught in a very logical way that really heightens your appreciation of seemingly simple structures, such as a leaf or a drop of blood. I like how broad it is, yet simultaneously the immense detail you can go into in each area.

I was particularly interested in molecular aspects, such as metabolism and genetics, which inspired me to study biochemistry at university. Furthermore, my teachers were enthusiastic about their subject, good at explaining complicated ideas in a clear and concise way, and willing to do all they could to allow their students to get the most out of lessons. This enthusiasm made me highly engaged in lessons and eager to find out more, thus increasing my desire to pursue a career in science.

COMMENT: A golden age
Ian Kinchin, editor of the Journal of Biological Education – which celebrated its 50th year in 2016 – reflects on changes in science teaching
It is not surprising that biology as a subject has evolved over the years in response to various selection pressures in the educational environment.
however, most of us still tend to put on our rose-tinted spectacles and look back at the 'golden age' of biology. But for each of us the golden age is different and personal – probably a time when we were excited about the subject because of a particularly good teacher or an interesting field trip experience.
For me, the golden age is marked by David Attenborough's 1979 Life on Earth TV series – an event that reinforced my passion for the natural world and for exploring the diversity of life, which coincided with me going to university.
since my golden age, there have certainly been a number of changes in biological education to note.
The development of the computer and its peripheral gadgetry has changed education across the board. This is not necessarily good or bad – it just is. However, as Cedric Richmond points out, we should not allow technology to replace the sensory experiences of biology – smelling it and touching it. Computer simulations are fine, but they are not a replacement for the 'real thing'.
Likewise, the PowerPoints mentioned by Annabell Shaw can get in the way of real teacher-student dialogue. Technology has never been a panacea – it is just another tool.
The internet is fantastic and enables students to access information from all over the globe. No longer do students have to search shelves of dusty journals for that key paper – Google Scholar now delivers it to your laptop. However, do students have the information literacy skills to sift through the mountains of information they find this way?
The discourse about education has also changed in the past 30 years. When I went to university, it was for the love of the subject; I was not strategic in the way I chose modules or in the books I read. I was just immersed in the subject. Now, it seems, the agenda is on employability. I am not saying that getting a job isn't a valid objective, but it can get in the way of developing a culture of learning if we have a fixed end-point for our goals.