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Skills progression in practical science within the Life Sciences

  • Project leader(s): Janet Haresnape
  • Theme: Other
  • Faculty: STEM
  • Status: Archived
  • Dates: May 2017 to March 2022

Employability is an increasingly important concern in contemporary Higher Education (HE). HE institutions have striven to develop and strengthen activities which relate to employability because potential students are increasingly and rightly interested in graduate destination data.  A degree is only the first step in starting a career and is unlikely to be enough on its own for finding employment corresponding to the level of education achieved.  Within the HE sector, there is increasing awareness of labour market detail, policy impact, and student expectations, and ensuring that the curriculum equips students with appropriate employability skills is therefore of strategic value to HE institutions, as well as being valuable and relevant to their students. 

Student participation in experiential learning activities (Kolb, 2015) - which include practical work - helps students to make connections between theoretical academic knowledge and practice, and hence to develop skills such as reflection, evaluation, and self-confidence, and increases their level of understanding (Pitan and Muller, 2019). Engaging with practical activities therefore has the potential to improve employability since these are important skills for the workplace; it has been suggested that including more practical activities in the curriculum can help to teach skills needed for employability (Olo, Correira and Rego, 2021).

Life Sciences degree students at the OU undertake one particular practical project which is first introduced in one module, and subsequently revisited in another where they design their own follow-up project.  In this study, students who had successfully completed both modules were surveyed to explore to what extent they had (i) developed and progressed practical and problem-solving skills by undertaking these practical projects and (ii) could articulate these as employability skills. 

Students undertaking both the initial and the follow-up investigation were not only found to have progressed their practical and problem-solving skills, but also to have developed personal attributes such as patience and perseverance.  The main themes to emerge from the analysis of the respondents’ comments were that many students found the practical investigations satisfying, rewarding and thought provoking, although some reported frustration with - and dislike of - repetitive work and a few viewed the investigations at face value and did not recognise the more far-reaching skills they were developing.

Approximately half the respondents had equated the skills developed with employability skills, but very few had articulated these in a job situation such as on an application form or in an interview. 

Finally, some possible ways of raising awareness among students of the employability skills they are developing as they undertake embedded practical activities are explored.

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