Welcome to September-October’s Learning and Teaching Enhancement theme: Innovation in Science Teaching

Electricity demonstration. 18th Century, by Science Photo Library, CC0.

In this post, Professor Tim Drysdale introduces September and October’s new Learning and Teaching Enhancement theme: Innovation in Science Teaching, with a reflection on past and future approaches to science teaching at The University of Edinburgh. Many posts in this series were featured as presentations and posters at the University’s Learning and Teaching Conference 2021.

As we seek to innovate in our science teaching, the weight of procedural inertia sometimes makes itself felt. The history of science teaching is perhaps more fluid and precarious than we are inclined to recall, offering insights that we can apply to navigating future changes. For example, our institution is over four centuries old, yet it was just two centuries ago that laboratory teaching was first formally introduced into University courses. Supposedly starting for Chemistry with Liebig at Giessen in 1824 (Boud et al, 1986), it followed in other subjects and locations later in that century (e.g. Physics in Oxford in the 1860s).

University of Giessen, founded 1607. Liebig introduced labs ca. 190 years ago. Image from https://www.ucalgary.ca/uci/abroad/exchange/giesse, cc0.

When did this innovation come to Edinburgh, you might ask? The intriguing tale of how it was already on campus, but overlooked, is paraphrased from Morrell (1969)…

The incumbent Professor Hope was in a prime position in Europe for chemistry teaching. He was renowned for his spectacular lecture demonstrations; his style suited classes composed according to the “Scottish tradition of democratic intellect,” i.e. there were no entrance examinations. Within Edinburgh, medicine was considered more important; indeed, practical work in chemistry was “not encouraged.” Meanwhile, the sciences were beginning to professionalise, requiring students to undertake practical work. To make up for its absence, Edinburgh students created societies as early as 1815, and by 1823, an assistant had introduced private classes in the Adam-Playfair building. So, practical work had arrived on campus, but was not adopted into our formal offering. Consequently, The University of Edinburgh surrendered its place in the history books of science teaching on this matter (and a contingent of its students) to Liebig, and others, who were better placed to take laboratory teaching into mainstream courses.

Today, the higher education system faces a similar situation once more, with a worldwide shift to a more digital, fluid and connected way of living. This has implications for all our teaching, not just in the sciences and engineering. Simply adopting some token, digital teaching tools and practices is insufficient because even our analogue practices are impacted by these external shifts. History tells us that to fully benefit from our innovations, we must seek to ensure widespread adoption, which requires individual, institutional and national support. To help, we need evidence – but this can be elusive.

Returning again to the example of practical work, but fast forwarding to the current era, we find it is expected by default in science teaching. Yet it is often prohibitively expensive in time, space and equipment. Funders in some countries have even suggested dropping it altogether – although we really shouldn’t. As practitioners we know in our bones that it is essential, yet our scientific A-B testing approach for innovations in science teaching has spectacularly failed to yield any definitive proof (Boud et al, 1986). Part of the reason is that, even in science teaching, the approach to educational research we must take is much more rooted in the specific context of the teaching intervention (due to the involvement of human subjects), and so the results are less generally applicable than the scientific laws with which we otherwise work. This makes advocating for evidence-based change a much more nuanced discussion.

As the world, and our teaching practice, starts to embrace an ever-more interdisciplinary approach, and as advanced technology makes its way into every facet of our everyday lives, a cross-fertilisation with the humanities has become ever more important to understanding the way forward not just for science education, but for our communities at large. It’s a messy, dynamic, and interesting world, and those brave enough to make changes stand to not only have a lot of fun but also make a (good) dent in the universe.

Looking to the future of science teaching at The University of Edinburgh, it is provocative to ask the hypothetical question: why, how and what would we teach, if we set up an Edinburgh Institute for Science and Engineering that was freed from the weight of continuity with our past approaches? Visions for the future of the University sector include values such as freedom, openness, porosity, equality, diversity, inclusivity, for both human and digital participants (see, for example, Near Future Teaching and Una Europa) . What would we do differently to fully take account of those values?  Join us in this Learning and Teaching Enhancement series issue to explore what leading science teaching practitioners at The University of Edinburgh have been investigating.

In some of the posts in this series, you will see reflected the changes wrought by the pandemic: closed laboratories, cancelled lectures, and losing the simple expedient of sharing pen and paper whilst discussing a problem. Other posts will address longer-standing opportunities for improvement. Both areas are of value to us going forward because securing a future in a technological world requires the discomfort of continuous innovation, evaluation and – crucially – wider adoption of new approaches. The ambition to change is reflected in both the University-level Curriculum Transformation Programme, and local initiatives. As you read these posts, I encourage you to reflect on what you can contribute in this vein to next year’s Learning and Teaching Conference.


Boud, D., Dunn, J., and Hegarty-Hazel, E., (1986). Teaching in Laboratories. The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press, Milton Keynes, UK, p. 5.

Morrell, J.B., (1969). Practical Chemistry in the University of Edinburgh, 1799–1843, Ambix, 16:1-2, 66-80, DOI: 10.1179/amb.1969.16.1-2.66.

picture of editor/producerTim Drysdale

Professor Timothy Drysdale is the Chair of Technology Enhanced Science Education in the School of Engineering, having joined the University of Edinburgh in August 2018. Immediately prior to that he was a Senior Lecturer in Engineering at the Open University, where he was the founding director and lead developer of the £3M openEngineering Laboratory. The openEngineering Laboratory is a large-scale online laboratory offering real-time interaction with teaching equipment via the web, for undergraduate engineering students, which has attracted educational awards from the Times Higher Education (Outstanding Digital Innovation, 2017), The Guardian (Teaching Excellence, 2018), Global Online Labs Consortium (Remote Experiment Award, 2018), and National Instruments (Engineering Impact Award or Education in Europe, Middle East, Asia Region 2018). He is now developing an entirely new approach to online laboratories to support a mixture of non-traditional online practical work activities across multiple campuses. His discipline background is in electronics and electromagnetics.

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