Specifications that use this resource:

Teaching guide: practical skills and research methods

This guide will help you to plan the theoretical aspects of the research methods used in environmental science and include them in your teaching. It will help you to incorporate the practical skills, of which students need first-hand experience.

These two approaches are dealt with separately in the specification, but this guide will help you to combine them in your teaching.

The practical elements of the course are intended to build on skills that were introduced and developed in GCSE science that encouraged students to work and think scientifically.

The apparatus and techniques used at GCSE form the basis of further enquiry in environmental science. By the end of the course, students will have further developed their skills and learnt new techniques. They should be able to plan and conduct practical activities to produce reliable data, which they can analyse and assess for statistical significance.

Research and practical skills in the specification

  • 3.7 Research methods – coverage of the theory of environmental planning and research methods.
  • 6 Appendix A: Working scientifically – the skills and activities of which students must have first-hand experience.
  • Opportunities for skills development and independent thinking – at the end of each section of the specification there are suggested activities that help in integrating practical skills into class-based activities.

Required practical work statement

There is a minimum requirement of 4 days of fieldwork for A-level. If a mixture of fieldwork and laboratory-based activities is chosen then the equivalent minimum requirement would be 2 days of fieldwork plus 12 laboratory-based activities.

Schools and colleges are required to provide a practical work statement that confirms each student has been given the opportunity to fulfil this requirement. Schools and colleges must provide the practical work statement by 15 May in the year of entry.

Any failure to provide this statement in a timely manner will be treated as malpractice or maladministration (under Ofqual's General Condition A8 'Malpractice and maladministration').

Background: the underlying philosophy of environmental research

The role of research in environmental science

Throughout the course, emphasis should be placed on the gaps in our understanding of the natural environment, the tentative nature of many of the conclusions reached so far and the need for further research.

Students should be encouraged to identify areas where more knowledge is needed and discuss the validity of conclusions reached following research studies.

In following this specification, practical activities and research methods should not be seen as being separate from the theoretical coverage of other topics. Research has provided the knowledge we have and will help to fill the gaps that currently exist. The key question is how we can plan and carry out good research that provides valid data.

Skills development through practical and research activities

The coverage of practical skills is not intended to just teach students standard techniques that can be copied accurately. The key aim is to develop skills of analysis and planning so that appropriate standardised techniques can be selected and used to produce accurate and reliable data that can in turn be used to draw valid conclusions.

There are opportunities throughout the specification where these skills can be developed through a variety of practical and theoretical situations. Primary data may be produced by the students through practical activities or secondary data from other studies may be analysed.

Planning skills can be developed in preparing to carry out practical activities or in considering how the data collection by other scientists was planned.

Preliminary studies

Because there is no ‘one size fits all’ set of ‘off the shelf’ methods that can be used for all situations, preliminary studies are usually needed to test the reliability of a method. For example, a method that works well to monitor the population of one plant species may be completely inappropriate for another species. An understanding should be developed of how methods can be selected, tested and adapted or rejected.

Assessing the validity of data

The analysis of data validity should not be restricted to practical activities carried out by the students. Data from other sources should be examined to consider the reliability of the methods used and the level of confidence in the conclusions reached. Sources of secondary data may come from peer reviewed scientific sources. They can also come from general media sources where the lack of information on how the data were collected can be a stimulus to discussion.

Some suitable sources are detailed below:

Planning of research

Key questions to consider when analysing the work of other scientists or planning a practical activity are the methodologies included in section 3.7.1, Scientific methodologies, of the specification.

  • Where should samples be collected?
  • How many samples should be collected?
  • How large should samples be?
  • When should samples be collected?
  • How can the technique be standardised?
  • What confidence level can be given to the data?

Research methods

Section 3.7 gives students the opportunity to gain a knowledge and understanding of a wide range of techniques and the methodologies used in planning scientific research.

The focus here is on class-based activities but, where appropriate, they may be combined with the practical activities highlighted in Appendix A.

3.7.1 Scientific methodologies

These provide the general decision making framework used in every scientific study. It should be emphasised that the techniques used in any study will only provide valid data if appropriate planning methodologies have been used.

Scientific methodologies are developed further in Appendix A: Working scientifically.

3.7.2 Sampling techniques Standard environmental techniques

Wherever possible, students should have first-hand experience of the techniques, but this is clearly impossible for many techniques. In these cases, students can gain a deeper understanding through the work of other scientists.

This section should not be treated as a single section that is covered in isolation. The knowledge of techniques and methodologies can be revisited whenever new information is needed to better understand an environmental issue.

Some of these techniques are developed further in Appendix A: Working scientifically. Fieldwork and laboratory activities

These activities can be carried out using the methodologies and techniques already covered. Specialist techniques

First-hand experience of these techniques is not required, but the principles of decision-making in research planning and data analysis can be applied wherever appropriate.

Working scientifically

All assessment is carried out through the written exams, with at least 15% assessing knowledge, skills and understanding in relation to practical work. Appendix A: Working scientifically gives details of the skills that should be developed and the activities required.

Environmental Science does not include coursework or a set list of required practical activities. However, students must be given the opportunity to carry out practical activities through fieldwork or through a mixture of fieldwork and laboratory-based activities. They must also have experience of using the methodologies in planning practical activities.

Working scientifically consists of developing:

6.1 Practical skills

  • independent thinking
  • use and application of scientific methods and practices
  • numeracy and the application of mathematical concepts in a practical context
  • instruments and equipment.

6.2 Required practical activities where students gain first-hand experience of the methodologies and sampling techniques. These are activities of the teacher’s choosing and would include the fieldwork the students must undertake.

6.3 Methodologies related to planning an environmental study so that the data collected is robust and reliable.

The emphasis must be on scientific decision making, not on simply learning of rigid procedures. Students must think about the methods used to establish appropriate methodologies, eg investigating the appropriate number of samples or timing of sampling for a particular investigation.

The A-level course requires experience of all six methodologies.

6.4 Sampling techniques are the techniques the students need to carry out when conducting environmental studies. These techniques include measuring abiotic factors and using quadrates measuring edaphic factors, for example. These are the techniques they used in the field to collect the data they have planned for by applying the methodologies.

6.5 Scientific principles

The skills and knowledge covered in this section should be developed throughout the course. They are the same overarching principles any scientist would wish to develop during a science course. Suitable opportunities of how and where these principles can be applied and developed are given in the specification, but this is not an exhaustive list and assessment will not necessarily use these examples.

Skills development throughout the specification

At the end of each major section in the specification, opportunities to develop skills which are relevant to that part of the specification are signposted. These are examples, but many other suitable opportunities could be developed.

Maths requirements

Appendix B: Maths requirements gives details of the maths skills that should be developed and suitable examples to develop these.

These maths skills should be developed throughout the course in considering quantitative data, but they are particularly relevant to practical activities.

10% of the overall assessment of A-level Environmental Science will contain mathematical skills equivalent to Level 2 or above.