Encourage your students to direct their own learning with an Extended Project Qualification
It has been just over a decade since the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) was introduced in England and Wales. Its increasing popularity now means about 30,000 students complete the National Level 3 qualification each year.
EPQs are taken by students in years 12 and 13. They identify an area for initial research and then devise a project title, which can be based on any topic, as long as it provides a clear focus and sufficient scope for academic research. They then decide whether to produce a 5000 word report, or create an ‘artefact’ and a shorter report. The finished project represents 120 hours’ work, and is submitted alongside a written log and presentation that documents their EPQ journey. Students are expected to plan, research and realise their projects independently, but they have regular access to a supervisor, who can discuss their ideas and provide constructive feedback along the way.
Choosing a topic
The chance to break free from a pre-determined syllabus is often what attracts students to the EPQ. For keen chemists, this is a fantastic opportunity to look at contemporary issues in chemistry. There are countless ‘hot topics’ that could be investigated, including micro-plastics, carbon capture and electric vehicles. Encouraging students to look regularly at the Science and Environment page of the BBC news website and at research articles from periodicals such as Chemistry World and Education in Chemistry can help them find a topic that really interests them.
Practical chemistry and EPQs
The 2015 reforms to chemistry A-levels in England and Wales spelled the end of the OCR Salter’s individual investigation, where students would have worked on an independent practical project. An EPQ presents an interesting way in which some students could still complete such a project.
While students must devise their own project title, the University of York provides a list of 33 suggested investigations intended for the old Salter’s course that students could be directed to for inspiration. Teachers can help students select a project that suits their interests. For example, a student interested in analytical techniques might be suited to a project investigating some aspect of the oxidation of wine. However, those keen on organic chemistry might prefer to plan and carry out an organic synthesis, perhaps comparing product yield and purity from different synthetic routes. Local universities may be amenable to allowing students to carry out spectroscopic analysis of their products, or you could book the RSC’s Spectroscopy in a Suitcase. Projects would be written up in the style of an academic paper, including a literature review, method and an analysis of their findings.
While students must devise their own project title, the University of York provides a list of 33 suggested investigations intended for the old Salter’s course (bit.ly/2EjXPDX) that students could be directed to for inspiration. Teachers can help students select a project that suits their interests. For example, a student interested in analytical techniques might be suited to a project investigating some aspect of the oxidation of wine. However, those keen on organic chemistry might prefer to plan and carry out an organic synthesis, perhaps comparing product yield and purity from different synthetic routes. Local universities may be amenable to allowing students to carry out spectroscopic analysis of their products, or you could book the RSC’s Spectroscopy in a Suitcase (rsc.li/2UqGvCc). Projects would be written up in the style of an academic paper, including a literature review, method and an analysis of their findings.
AQA and OCR have published teacher guidance for practical science EPQs. Many schools have an established team of supervisors, but if they are not science-specialists, an additional ‘technical mentor’ (such as a chemistry teacher or technician) can supervise practical work and provide guidance on equipment and safety. As mentors and supervisors, discuss possible projects with students at the planning stage, guiding them towards an investigation that is achievable, given the time and resources available. Arranging supervised lab time and coordinating with technicians could present logistical challenges, so students need to be committed, organised and reliable.
Schools must provide 30 hours of lessons covering key skills such as research, report writing and referencing. This is typically delivered by the EPQ coordinator or by individual supervisors, and need not be onerous in terms of planning, as OCR, AQA and the University of Manchester have published downloadable teaching resources.
Encourage students to act on what they have learned
After each lesson, as a supervisor, encourage students to act on what they have learned. For example, after they have been introduced to organisational tools such as Gantt charts, discuss with students how they plan to use them. Asking students to keep a research diary and bring it to meetings is a good way to ensure they are recording each source and summarising its findings, making referencing easier later on. As a supervisor, I have found that insisting students send me their log at least 24 hours ahead of a scheduled meeting helps to ensure face-to-face time is used effectively.
EPQs allow students to develop many transferrable skills. They must manage time effectively, prioritise tasks appropriately, and develop the motivation to meet self-imposed deadlines. Self-evaluation is also a key focus. Students reflect on their progress at each stage of their project, recording successes, challenges and opportunities for improvement.
Many universities have indicated that they value EPQs because of the skills successful candidates develop. An A* at EPQ carries 28 UCAS points, equating it roughly to an AS qualification. By delving deeper into a topic that interests them, students find their projects give them something unique to say in their UCAS personal statement, as well as a means of demonstrating depth and breadth of knowledge at interview.
EPQs are not for everyone and incorporating practical work could present some logistical challenges. However, for potential future chemists, the opportunity to carry out an independent research project might well be what separates them from the rest.
Annabel Jenner is a chemistry teacher at Talbot Heath School, Bournemouth, UK
- AQA Quick guide to practical science projects: filestore.aqa.org.uk/subjects/AQA-PROJECTS-QG-PS.PDF
- OCR Quick guide to practical science projects: ocr.org.uk/Images/418259-science-based-extended-project-teacher-s-guide.pdf
- OCR: ocr.org.uk/qualifications/projects/extended-project-h856/
- AQA: aqa.org.uk/subjects/projects/project-qualifications/EPQ-7993/teaching-and-learning-resources
- University of Manchester: manchester.ac.uk/connect/teachers/students/post-16/extended-project/resources/