THE NEW 21st-century science GCSE course may have been slated by critics as being more suited to the pub than the classroom. But the first evaluations of its core curriculum have shown it gets pupils more excited about the subject.
The course relates science to topical issues such as global warming, nuclear power, bird flu and stem cell cloning. Scientists and politicians hope it could tackle the declining numbers studying the subject at school and university, but the academic validity of its curriculum has been questioned.
Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College, London, has been among its critics. But Professor Dame Julia Higgins, vice-president of the Royal Society and principal of the faculty of engineering at Imperial College, has given the course her endorsement. In her inaugural address as president of the Association for Science Education, she said: "Despite the statements of colleagues, even at Imperial College, I am very excited about the new GCSEs." Three studies of the course for the Nuffield Foundation, to be published soon, have all reached positive conclusions. Professor Jonathan Osborne, one of the authors, said the old standard GCSE double science was, "to adopt a politician's phrase, not fit for purpose".
"What do they mean when they say the 21st-century science is more suited to the pub?" he asked.
"I would be quite happy if people were talking about science down at the pub, because that would mean they saw science as important and relevant to their lives. Which is more than the standard science course does, where they walk out and forget most of the information." The research, which was presented at the ASE conference, was conducted by academics from King's College London and the universities of York, Leeds and Southampton.
They interviewed students and teachers at the 78 schools that piloted 21st-century science and compared responses with those from schools teaching double science. The authors conceded 21st-century science was let down by its exams.
Kate Chaytor, an advanced skills science teacher at Sacred Heart language college, Harrow, north-west London, said she enjoyed teaching the course, but the exams were "rather wooden". "The papers don't reflect the skills and excitement in the teaching," she said. "In a sense you are being let down by the exam system."
David Perks, a physics teacher who led criticism of the course last year, said he still believed it would undermine science. "Science isn't 'easy',"
he said. "If they're finding it easy, it's not academic science. My serious worry is that, if we're not careful, we're throwing away something we can never get back."
Enjoying the subject
The three Nuffield studies found that:
Students gained a better understanding of data than students on the traditional double science course.
In all other areas, they performed as well as students on the old course.
Students found the new course easier, more topical and they were more enthusiastic about the coursework.
They enjoyed science more and were more likely to acknowledge the importance of science to society.
Teachers also enjoyed the course more, despite at first finding it more demanding to teach.
Give the right answer
The new 21st-century GCSE course encourages pupils to relate science to everyday matters, as well as to controversies they come across daily.
Dr Keith Ross, teaching fellow in science education at Gloucestershire university, lists some common incorrect answers to questions about daily occurences.
Question Bread isn't hot so how do we get energy from it?
* The bread contains energy but it is only released when we eat it
* Energy is released during respiration - a process that happens in the cells of our body where digested bread combines with oxygen we have breathed in. Energy is released as the oxygen combines with the carbohydrate forming carbon dioxide and water which we breathe out.
Question When wood burns, do the atoms burn too?
* Yes - that is why the wood has all gone
* No - during burning, the atoms of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen making up the wood combine with oxygen in the air to form carbon dioxide and water and they are invisible in the air.
Question If electrical energy is transferred from battery to bulb and nothing goes back, why do we need a complete circuit?
* Not all the energy is used so some has to go back to the battery.
* The current (flow of electrons) goes round, but energy is carried by the current from the battery to the bulb. l www.ase.org.uksci-tutors