Conference on Science Education, Chile

Biotechnology & Biosecurity
The IAP Science Education Programme's biennial conference took place in Santiago Chile, on 'Improving the Learning of Biology and Related Sciences at the Pre-university Level', 14-15 April 2016.

The IAP biennial science education conference took place on 14-15 April.

The international conference focused on 'Improving the Learning of Biology and Related Sciences at the Pre-University Level', and was hosted at the University of Chile in the country’s capital city, Santiago.

More than 200 people attended, many being schoolteachers from Chile eager to learn about the latest development in investigation-based science education (IBSE) and from experts coming from more than 20 countries (including many members of the IAP Science Education Programme’s Global Council.

“What do we expect to accomplish in these two days of conference?” asked Jorge Allende, president of the Organizing Committee, in his welcome address. “Science is the way our civilization has created to gain new knowledge about the Universe and about ourselves,” he explained. “Science can teach some key values to our children such as love of truth, the importance of teamwork, the rejection of dogmas, and tolerance and respect for different ideas.”

In his keynote address, Bruce Alberts, former president of US NAS and editor-in-chief of Science magazine, argued that the way we teach science has to change, starting at university level, as well as for more scientists to assist teachers.

“We are not going to make great strides in science education until we have scientists continually supporting teachers and the system,” he said, adding that in his home city of San Francisco, scientists volunteer more than 10,000 hours per year. “Active learning needs to be added to ‘stagnant classes’,” he continued. “This can’t be done overnight, but courses can be adapted one module at a time.”

Mobile biotech

These ideas have been taken up in Chile, where mobile laboratories have been taken to schools so that pupils aged 16-17 can practice genomic and molecular biology techniques through hands-on experiments.  To begin with, teachers are trained in the laboratory modules and then invite the mobile lab to their school – which his accompanied by postgraduate students from a nearby university. In a 5-day course, the pupils receive eight lectures and undertake four practical classes.

The mobile laboratory itself fits into two suitcases and has visited 27 schools in the Santiago area.

“Through RELAB, we got funding from the Wellcome Trust to roll out the project, starting in 2012 with courses for teachers and the first school visits in 2014,” informed Allende. “Now, as well as scaling up in Chile, we have rolled out the project to Uruguay (in 2014), Brazil and Panama (in 2015), and are staring in Peru this year.”

Early evidence shows that students who take the experimental course obtain better grades. On a visit by members of the IAP SEP Global Council to a nearby secondary school, it was also clear that the pupils enjoyed learning by doing, as well as their interactions with the postgraduate students. Indeed, some had event volunteered time in a student’s laboratory to get more experience for a potential future career in science, while a former student explained how he was inspired to study biology and is now working on research aimed at improving salt tolerance in crop plants.

LASER vision

In her presentation, Carol O’Donnell, director of the Smithsonian Science Education Centre (SSEC), USA, reported on a 5-year evaluation study carried out as an independent randomized controlled trial in three states and followed some 9,000 students over three years, comparing ‘business as usual’ schools with those teaching using the ‘Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform’ (LASER) system of learning-by-doing.

Among the take-home messages, explained O’Donnell, is that students were able to apply what they had learned to solve real scientific problems, there was in increase in reading and maths scores in students following the LASER system, and under-served students (e.g. those with English as a second language) also scored higher.

The LASER study is the largest of its kind to date and confirms the benefits of IBSE.

Assessing success

Wynne Harlen, visiting professor, University of Bristol, UK, argued that pupils undergoing inquiry-based learning need to be assessed continuously – so-called formative assessment, which mirrors the way of learning, as teachers collect evidence about students’ ideas and skills, including how they work in groups. The alternative method, summative assessment, she explained, is assessment that happens at certain times such as in end-of-year examinations.

“What is taught must drive what is assessed,” concluded Harlen, “rather than what is assessed determining what is taught. We must avoid this type of ‘teaching to exams,’.”

Breakout reports

The conference concluded with the reports of three breakout groups.

The first group, chaired by Amy D’Amico of the SSEC, discussed the challenges of scaling up successful small projects to national and international dimensions. Among their conclusions was the need to collaborate at multiple levels (local, national and international) and to leverage expertise from multiple sources.

“The most convincing thing we can do to convince policy-makers and others of the benefits of IBSE is to take them to see students who demonstrate and explain what they have learned,” she concluded.

Ambassador Gabriel Rodriguez, director of the Division of Energy, Science, Technology and Innovation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chile, chaired the discussions on international collaboration to support science education projects.

“We need to put science at the centre of education,” he reported. “To do this, we need to go beyond pilot studies and involve all stakeholders – governments, the private sector, the scientific community, NGOs and civil society – and convince them that science education is the way forward, for example to help reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We need to ask what kind of society or economy and convince all parties that science education is critical a=in achieving those aims.”

The final group, which looked at generating modules to teach pre-university students about environmental preservation and mitigating the impact of climate change, was chaired by Mary Kalin, director of the Millennium Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity, University of Chile.

“We all rely on biodiversity and ecosystem services, and climate change is a global issue,” she said. “So we need a global way of teaching these subjects.

“Climate change is also cross-disciplinary – involving physics, chemistry, oceanography and other subject areas – so it does not fit well with the curriculum. It is also complex and uncertain. The way to respond to these challenges is to train children – and adults – to have a scientific mind.”

Way ahead

Ahead of the next day’s meeting of the IAP SEP Global Council, its chair Dato Lee Yee Cheong, Academy of Sciences Malaysia, outlined his proposals for advancing the IAP programme over the coming months and years.

He focused on the SDGs, highlighting Goal 4: ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning for all’ – saying that if gender equality is put at the heart of the development agenda, then we will get much closer to achieving the SDGs by the target date of 2030.

Cheong also highlighted opportunities for introducing IBSE projects into regional and global initiatives such as China’s multi-billion-dollar ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement between Chile, Malaysia and 10 other Pacific-rim countries and which includes a chapter dedicated to education.

Report by Peter McGrath

IAP Coordinator

The conference, 'Improving the Learning of Biology and Related Sciences at the Pre-University Level', was organized by RELAB and the University of Chile and sponsored by IAP, UNESCO/OEALC, IUBMB, the Fundacion Allende Connelly, CNID, ICGEB and three agencies of the Chilean government (MINEDUC, MINREL and CONICYT).


The book of abstracts and participants’ biodata is available HERE.

Some photographs from the meeting are available HERE.

Videos of the presentations are also available in both English and Spanish.

A report – including a short video – of visits to schools by the international speakers at the conference is available HERE (in Spanish with some interviews in English in the video).


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