...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Day 2108: Let's do 21st Century Science


As you may have guessed, I am very PRO-SCIENCE!

I think that every elephant should know some of the basics about how the world is made and how things work.

And, BETTER THAN THAT, that we can try and work out MORE STUFF about how the world works, and that we have a process for coming up with ideas and then testing to see if they are right by finding evidence.

(And with DOCTOR WHO back on the telly, I hope that people will again be thinking that there is MORE to science than just FORENSIC MEDICINE!)

Apparently, though, there have been some complaints about the new syllabus for GCSE Science from some TOP PEOPLE.

It seems that they are worried that the new school course will not prepare people properly for being SCIENTISTS OF THE FUTURE™. They are RIGHT to be concerned, of course, because already there do not seem to be enough new scientists to go around and at least one university is closing its physics department.

So I have made Daddy Richard go and do the example Physics papers in order to see how thick he is see what they are made of.

And on the whole, they did not seem entirely unreasonable: questions based on the dangers of sunbathing, the stopping distances of cars, cooling a drink with ice or generating electricity by solar panels at the equator. They are vaguely practical and vaguely relevant to everyday life (in a nice Middle Class sort of way!)

The paper comes in FOUNDATION or HIGHER flavours – I THINK that you are only supposed to do one or the other, as the Higher paper used a lot of the same starting points as the Foundation one and asked SOME of the same questions but replaced other questions with more detailed – alright HARDER – ones.

Daddy did NOT get all of the answers right!

(He could not remember that total internal refraction is determined by the CRITICAL angle; and he answered "High Tension Power Cables" for TRANSMISSION CABLES, the silly man!)

Plus there is the whole course work thing (no, NOT copying from the internet!) to do, so Daddy is NOT getting a GCSE from ME!

We have looked in particular at the new CURRICULUM called 21st Century Science from Nuffield Curriculum Centre and the University of York Science Education Group in association with Oxford University Press.

It seems to be based on doing a CORE course called "Science" that covers topical and practical subjects that young elephants and people should know a bit about. These include: global warming, radiation and genetics among other topics.

As Daddy looked through them, he ASSUMED that there were some things that were covered further down the National Curriculum, things like: the equations of motion, electric circuits or the periodic table of the elephants elements. He was a BIT disappointed, then, to discover that these actually appear to be included in "Advanced Science" which is a set of EXTRA schoolwork that people can do and turns "Science" into a double GCSE.

(On the other fluffy foot, it was a bit of a surprise to find study of polymers WAS included because organic chemistry – or "how it works: our friend the carbon molecule" – was not included very much in Daddy's O-Level!)

We were a LITTLE bit alarmed where the "Life on Earth" module is described as presenting:

"…some different explanations for the origin of life on Earth, and its evolution, including Darwin's explanation of natural selection."

(Because, as I am sure YOU know: (a) Darwin's theory doesn't explain the ORIGIN of life; it is only about how life changes – evolves – once it has begun, and (b) exactly WHAT "different explanations" to modern evolutionary theory are we talking about here?)

The same problem crops up in the "Earth in the Universe" module – which does seem to cover everything from cosmology to plate tectonics! – where it says:

"Beliefs about God - or the absence of God - underlie any discussion of origins. They might arise at two points in this module: the discussion of fossils and the big bang theory of the origin of the Universe.

"We suggest that you let students air their views, but at the same time you should prevent this distracting them from the module's main themes."

This is a DELICATE area (to say the LEAST!) and not one to go trampling over with my big flappy feet, but it DOES seem to be a bit of an opening to let people's BELIEF SYSTEMS stick their unscientific oars in.

Letting the students "air their views" appears to be just offering a safety valve to stop the OBVIOUS CONFLICT arising – but it also looks worryingly like a point where there might be missing a strong DEFENCE of the evidence based scientific understanding for the entirely understandable reason that no one want to have to drop kick into touch anybody's firmly held belief in the FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER (other creation myths also available)!

All of which, one fluffily suspects, is what makes the "science elite" think that the "Science" GCSE is dumbed down, or a bit of a "pub quiz" version.

BUT, the question is: what is the GCSE for? People who think that they are going to go on and study science at A Level or harder will probably be doing the double science option anyway. The core science course is for EVERYONE so that they have at least a bit of an idea about things that are going on in the news – like why it is BAD to explode nuclear bombs, or why we need to use less carbon-based energy if we are going to stop the world burning up.

It is TRUE that we want our next generation of scientists to have a proper grounding in the basics: having a grasp of the basic laws – and that there ARE basic laws – that make everything work; but understanding that DOUBT and TESTING as much as IMAGINING new theories are the basis of the scientific method; and knowing that mathematics is the OPERATING LANGUAGE of the processes of the universe.

And we SHOULD worry about the shortage of physics students – physics is IMPORTANT, and not just to understanding BIG questions like "when will the sun explode" or "what colour is a black hole?" It is the basis of EVERYDAY stuff like engineering or architecture: you wouldn’t want to use a bridge or a building that was built by someone who DIDN’T understand about FORCES like gravity, now would you?

It is not that children are not learning physics – in fact the number learning SOME physics jumped up enormously when "general science" GCSE was introduced as an option instead of separate courses for Chemistry, Biology and Physics.

The problem is that there are not enough teachers who are specialists in physics: two-thirds of pupils are taught physics lessons by teachers who do not have a degree in the subject; one third are taught it by teachers who do not even have an A Level in physics! This is not a question of how good the teachers are as TEACHERS, but how good they are at PHYSICS. What pupils are missing out on is the degree of enthusiasm and encouragement that comes from being taught by someone who really knows the subject.

But we are not going to fix that overnight; and we are not going to fix that by making science MORE "elite"!

Because we do also want people to be INSPIRED to be scientists in the first place, and that means that science should not be something ALIEN to any large part of the population. People should NOT be separated into those who DO science and those who do not GET it.

If MOST people realise that science stuff is not only around them all the time, but that they can understand it and USE it to make things better, then we can hope to get MORE people WANTING to take science A Levels and degrees.

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