The popular appeal of astronomy and cosmology owes much to the remoteness and mystery of the night sky. In all cultures it has inspired poems, songs and stories, and continues to do so. "Where are we?" and "When are we?" are powerful questions.
It's easy enough to convey the adventure of space exploration to younger children. Those who later take up astronomy at university enjoy detailed learning about practical techniques and maths-based theory. But when it comes to teenagers, how do you avoid reducing astronomy to a collection of dry facts? Can you build on the interest that many of them have in Star Trek or horoscopes?
This term pupils at 80 pilot schools around the country are learning science in a new way. All students studying GCSE 21st century science will do a "science for citizens" course called Core Science. Space earns its place in this course because of its cultural importance.
In a module called Earth in the Universe, students will approach the information about our local solar system by first trying to answer the question: "What killed the dinosaurs?" They will learn about comets and asteroids. They will discover that, although the present rate of collisions is now much less than it once was, the Earth could be struck catastrophically again. Among other things, the students will go on to learn how, 200 years ago, scientist William Herschel guessed at the fact that stars also have life cycles. They may also discuss what can be done about light pollution, which prevents increasingly more people from fully seeing the night sky.
Another module, Radiation and Life, stresses the assessment of risk.
Students will consider the protection that the ozone layer offers from ultraviolet radiation and the fact that, above the atmosphere, astronauts experience additional radiation hazards.
The emphasis in our approach is about how we know what we know. How are theory and observations related? How do scientists communicate? How do they argue and sort out reliable knowledge?
More information about this new suite of courses is available at www.21stcenturyscience.orghome
Peter Campbell develops GCSE materials at the Nuffield Curriculum Centre