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Equipped for the world we live in

Changes to the way science is taught at GCSE will aim to make the subjects more appealing and relevant to young people. The aim is not only to reverse the decline in take-up of subject post-16, but to make students more scientifically literate.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA)'s programme of study for science at key stage 4 changes from September next year, allowing qualifications to meet the needs of a much wider range of pupils. Its changes have been informed by successful trials of a set of new GCSE courses called 21st Century Science.

The basic premise behind the new GCSEs is that, given the increasing complexity of science and the public debate on issues such as climate change and stem-cell research, it's no longer enough just to educate A-level and degree scientists.

"We need a science curriculum that offers greater flexibility and genuine choice to cope with the diversity of students' interests and aspirations," says the team behind the new GCSEs. "Only a minority become professional scientists. But all of us as citizens need to be able to cope with the science that shapes our lives."

Scientific literacy is at the heart of the authority's new programme.

Pupils will be taught how scientific data can be collected, analysed and interpreted to test ideas and develop theories. They will also learn practical and enquiry skills, communication and applications and implications of science.

The programme says pupils should also be taught the knowledge, skills and understanding of how science works through the study of organisms and health; chemical and material behaviour; energy electricity and radiations; and the environment, the Earth and the universe.

The pilot 21st Century Science course, commissioned by QCA and run by the Nuffield Curriculum Centre and the University of York Science Education Group, started in September 2003 in 80 schools. It offers a core science course for all key stage 4 students leading to one GCSE grade. Many of the biggest features of science are included, but it is also designed to help young people deal with real issues, such as genetically modified food scares or the safety of mobile phones.

Alongside the core science course, young people can opt for one of two additional science courses, either applied or general, also leading to one grade, for those wanting to go on to higher academic or vocational courses.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is also carrying out a review of key stage 3 science following recommendations in the Government's 14-19 White Paper, to match the revised programme of study for key stage 4. This is unlikely to appear until 2008.

Mark Orrow-Whiting, the authority's adviser for science says: "Around 600,000 students do double-award science at the moment and, from that, less than 10 per cent go on to do science post-16.

"And if we listen to what the Government is telling us constantly, which is that we need scientists and engineers for the future prosperity of this country, we really do need to encourage more and more young people to stay on post-16."

And the situation for science teachers is changing too. Professional development centres are helping them keep on top of their subjects by giving them access to scientists at the frontiers of industry and research.

This autumn sees the opening of the new National Science Learning Centre at the University of York, which will complete a pound;50 million network of nine centres.

The centres, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Department for Education and Skills, are an important weapon in the battle to boost science teaching, offering professional development for teachers from primary schools to post-16.

Everyone attending a course at the new national centre will get one-to-one support, access to the latest facilities and resources and comfortable accommodation.

Offerings include courses for new and aspiring heads of science, programmes on inspiring post-16 sciences, conferences for primary science co-ordinators, and summer schools for newly qualified teachers.

The national centre will also offer personalised online learning via its website, helping teachers to identify their professional development needs and highlight courses. Fees are charged, but the centres offer discounts and incentives to encourage teachers and technicians to attend.

Its director, John Holman, professor of chemical education at the University of York, said courses will involve scientists working at the cutting edge.

"That's deliberate because we believe that science teachers' subject knowledge quickly gets out of date," he says. "Even if you graduated only five years ago, science has changed enormously during that time.

"So probably more than any other subject, science teachers need to have regular updating of their subject knowledge, and bringing in modern industrial scientists is a very good way of doing it because often they are right at the leading edge of what's going on."

Professor Holman says companies could give more help by sponsoring teachers' professional development.

"To provide a bursary for 20 teachers to attend their local science learning centres is only going to cost a company something like pound;4,000. It could make a big difference," he says.

The chemical industry has also funded Children Challenging Industry, a big training initiative to improve the quality of science teaching in primary schools. Run by the Chemical Industry Education Centre, the project sends advisory teachers into schools and allows class teachers to observe lessons and brings staff and pupils into industry to see science in action.

Dr Allan Clements, director of the centre and a former ICI chemist, says the project is helping to boost primary science teaching and raise its profile for younger pupils.

"We put science into context and demonstrate to kids where science is useful and that it's all around them in industry," he said. "They pick up so much, and see scientists working and having a good time, rather the stereotypical image of the boffin professor.

"We have seen some evidence that children who were involved in the project five years ago are probably more interested in pursuing a science career than they would otherwise."

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