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Put general science Higher in the mix, says academic

News | Published in TESS on 18 May, 2012 | By: Emma Seith

Qualification need not involve any ‘dumbing down’

Academics teaching science and engineering at Scotland’s universities have called for the introduction of a general science Higher that is challenging enough to appeal to the brightest and best pupils.

General science qualifications were often looked upon as the “dumbed-down” option to single subjects, but it did not have to be that way, said Alan Roach, emeritus professor at the University of the West of Scotland’s School of Science. With the boundaries between the different science disciplines becoming increasingly blurred and the need to create a science-literate population, it was time for a good-quality science Higher, he argued.

Professor Roach made his comments last week at the Science Scotland conference, where he was speaking as co-leader of STEM Ed Scotland, a partnership involving the deans of science and engineering in Scotland, which aims to champion world-class education in STEM subjects.

But the top priority for Annette Smith, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, was to ensure all pupils had a basic understanding of science. Getting young people to take STEM subjects at university was “a minority concern”, she told the conference.

“A maximum of 20 per cent of young people are going to enter scientific careers and the majority are not,” she said. “I would argue the real problem, the real issue, is these people’s perception of science. They will be the ones that give permission for science to be carried out.”

A survey of university STEM departments found the thing they valued most in school leavers was their attitude, followed by their skills and knowledge, said Professor Roach. “Details like which carbonates are soluble are nice to know but not critical,” he said. “What is critical are key ideas and concepts and being able to apply them.”

He was largely positive about the impact Curriculum for Excellence would have on learning in STEM but was sceptical about the new qualifications. You had to apply an assessment approach that matched the educational priorities and not assess what was easy, the “Trivial Pursuit approach”, as he called it.

A good reaction

A Scottish council is using Advanced Higher pupils studying science to support teachers in its primaries.

Over the course of the past year, 32 sixth-year pupils have taken part in Aberdeen City Council’s ambassador scheme - one of a raft of measures introduced by the council to improve primary teachers’ confidence in delivering science.

The authority has also set up a five-day science summer school for primary teachers and all its primaries are working towards the Primary Science Quality Mark.

See page 22.

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