They need to ditch their classroom past if they want students to grasp the excitement of science and discuss contemporary issues like GM crops or Dolly the sheep in revamped courses, a London University professor last week told Scottish teachers at a conference in Edinburgh.
Jonathan Osborne, of King's College, described physics, chemistry and biology teaching as largely didactic. From-the-front teaching left little room for discussion.
Professor Osborne told the 2020 Science: Education conference, backed by the Scottish Executive, that a new AS-level course in science for public understanding was proving massively popular. Half of those taking it are girls and a third are doing no other science.
They examine hot topics such as air pollution, energy sources, genetics, radioactivity and germs with less emphasis on practical bench work.
Scotland has yet to develop such a course, although the science education lobby is pressing for it.
"The kind of change required to teach this kind of course is significant and substantive and teaching skills are different from the many skills teachers learnt and the culture they work in. They need help with small group discussion," Professor Osborne said.
It was a difficult exam in which students had to construct complex arguments around live issues. Since most science teachers had never been practical scientists, there were also questions about teachers' understanding of contemporary topics. They might need substantial in-service training on teaching skills and subject knowledge.
Robin Millar, the York University professor who co-devised the course, said that it was helping to counter negative perceptions of science among young people, who often saw what they studied at school as irrelevant.