All science is at heart mathematical. Without mathematics there would be no mathematical modelling (at the very least all scientific systems evolve in time), no point to quantification and no understanding of variation, or of variability. Yet too many students begin their post-16 scientific studies with an inadequate understanding of maths.
Many schools assume that a pass in GCSE mathematics at grade C, or above (irrespective of the tier), will give students the grounding to cope with A-level science. It will not.
Common difficulties include poor understanding of proportional reasoning, and inability to transpose formulae and to construct and interpret graphs. None the less, in 1996, for example, three-quarters of students taking A-level biology did not study A-level maths as well; and the figure for A-level physics was about one-third.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has developed 12 post-16 maths units, which are being piloted in schools and colleges, in conjunction with the three English unitary awarding bodies.
Six of the units are directly relevant to science students. The first three - solving problems in shape and space; handling and interpreting data; using algebra, functions and graphs - are all equivalent in mathematical difficulty to the upper end of GCSE mathematics. The other three - using and applying statistics; working with algebraic and graphical techniques; and modelling with calculus - are of a standard comparable to AS- or A-level maths.
The units are aimed at those studying for GNVQ or A-level, or at access or foundation students in further education.
The units are smaller than a full qualification, but the same size as the new A-level module units (six of which will be equivalent to an A-level) and the new GNVQ units, both to be introduced in September 2000.
The units also use information technology. Students are required to use graphic calculators, graphics or statistical software, spreadsheets, or statistical and scientific functions on scientific calculators.
Assessment will be based on written examination and student portfolio. Students must pass each component separately. There will be five pass grades from A-to-E.
These units, used sensibly, could provide the boost in confidence and understanding that will enable better scientists to emerge from our secondary schools and colleges.
Jack Abramsky is a principal subject officer with the QCA. It welcomes approaches by any institution willing to pilot any of these units from September 1999 until summer 2000. The Nuffield Foundation is funding a project to produce teaching materials to support some of the units. Details: 0171 509 5581