With issues such as human cloning and GM foods in the headlines, the course aims to help pupils make sense of the science they will come across in their daily adult lives, rather than preparing them to be scientists. The exam will be piloted in 50 schools this year.
John Holman, director of the science curriculum centre at York University, which will produce teaching materials for the new GCSE, said: "We have to face the awkward fact that the science we currently teach to the many is only practised by the few."
The current double GCSE in science, taken by about 80 per cent of pupils, has been criticised for failing to engage pupils or encourage enough to study science post-16. The new "hybrid" qualification includes a single GCSE compulsory core. This skips much of the theory traditionally taught at this level and instead tries to give pupils a "tool kit" of what they need to know "when they visit the doctor, read the newspaper or go to the supermarket".
Topics include genes and inheritance, how energy is generated and used, chemical change and the solar system. Mr Holman said: "These are the things pupils need to make sense of the world. We want students to carry them with them for the rest of their lives."
Pupils could also take academic (general) modules or vocational (applied) units to make up a double-science GCSE. However, a 14-year-old who follows the applied route will lack the necesssary theoretical knowledge to study traditional science A-levels.
Critics have already attacked plans to make foreign languages and design and technology optional from 14. However, Mr Holman said the aim of the new GCSE was to provide maximum flexibility. He said it might be possible to mix academic and vocational elements.
Modules will be examined at the end of Year 10, when pupils are 15, and January and June of Year 11.
A spokeswoman for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said: "The aim is to explore innovative approaches towards GCSE science. Pupils taking the common core and the general strand will be as well equipped to go on to study A-level science as those currently following the double award."