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From next year, everyday issues will exercise the minds of GCSE candidates, says Gill Brown.

How worried should we be about mobile phones damaging our health? It's a question regularly raised in the press where it attracts conflicting views and information. Yet it is a debate that today's young people will need to follow as they, and later their children, decide whether to buy the latest model.

Sheila Curtis, head of science at Haggerston Girls School in Hackney, brought a Year 10 science group out to measure the radiation levels from seven mobile phone base stations sited on the roof of the nearby bingo hall.

"Are they radiating us?"; "Who said they could put the masts there?" girls asked, as they took readings from a small but expensive microwave detector.

The experiment was part of the GCSE core course of the Twenty First Century Science syllabus, which Haggerston, along with 80 other schools, has been piloting for two years.

This morning's work was part of the "radiation and life" module. "This is the kind of work students really enjoy," says Sheila. "It is serious science but relates to their everyday lives. They can engage with the mobile phone debate as well as writing it up as coursework."

The first measurement was taken directly underneath the building, then 10 metres back and so on. In all, six readings were recorded; while back in class results were debated, written up and made into a graph. As part of the same lesson, pupils took readings from a mobile phone and discussed if the microwaves were heating up their brains. No one expected the experiments to prove anything conclusive but the results informed the debate beyond what the teacher had expected.

Twenty First Century Science has been developed by York University and the awarding body OCR for key stage 4 at the request of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, with resources produced by Oxford University Press.

In the past, students looking at radiation would have only been expected to make a table of wavelengths and the electromagnetic spectrum, which some would have learnt by heart for the exam. Adopting these more relevant teaching techniques, Sheila Curtis believes, will help science grow in popularity: "The new approach meant staff adopting a new philosophy. It needed thought and training, but certainly pupils are more responsive because they can see the point of the work they are doing."

The core module is for all Year 10 pupils. "Pupils have more choice at this stage. It is science at its most creative - relevant, exciting and challenging," she said. The flexibility of the core module allows staff to design their own lessons and to link up with other schools. Last year, Haggerston students developed a project on inherited illness. First, they role-played a family where a baby had been born with a genetic disease.

They took it seriously, many talking in their home language. "It was really good," says Yasmin Neelufar. "You understood it more as if you were living in it. I don't like just learning facts, I'd rather do something." The class also collected newspaper cuttings and made videos, and then took part in a courtroom-style debate along with two other schools.

Such scientific literacy is at the heart of the current debate in science education. The Beyond 2000 report from King's College highlighted the apparent gap between current science teaching and the growing importance of scientific issues in daily life. This is central to the QCA's 2006 GCSE curriculum requirements. "We realise that many pupils will be ending their science education at 16, so we need to equip them with the tools to follow and engage with debate, whether it be global warming or GM foods," says Martin Hollins, principal consultant in science and technology at the QCA.

The QCA also expects to see more pupil involvement, crucial to pupil commitment in science at KS4.

"Overall, we are looking for a safe, flexible system that has more depth and less breadth than the current one," says Martin Hollins. "However, we will require that courses do provide a firm foundation for future study for those who wish to pursue science further."

From September 2006, all awarding bodies will restructure their specifications to meet these new KS4 science criteria. The Twenty First Century Science course from OCR has two additional GCSE choices, currently called additional science and additional applied science. "It is an integrated suite of courses, which can accommodate the range of needs and aspirations students have at this age," says project manager Jenifer Burden.

With the core course, the additional science syllabus prepares pupils for AS and A-level by focusing on fundamental ideas in the sciences; the additional applied version offers a basis for progressing to technical, pre-vocational and vocational courses. Pupils can also take three separate sciences.

At Haggerston, KS4 pupils have not yet elected whether to take an additional course. "They will be deciding towards the end of this year," says Sheila Curtis. "We are trying it this way to give them as much time as possible before choosing, as their future studies will be affected by their choices."

In the meantime, as with most other teachers who piloted the course, her verdict is positive despite some blips. "It is generally agreed that the materials need more differentiation and many of those piloting the course have had a problem with the IT," she says. "But I am cautiously predicting an improvement in science grades here this year and that would be a big plus for everyone." Teachers' TV filmed a lesson in the Twenty First Century Science syllabus at Haggerston to be broadcast later this term

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