Bertrand Russell maintained that "Almost everything that distinguishes the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science". He pointed to the 17th-century as the crucial turning-point, but there is every reason to believe that the pace of scientific discovery will continue to accelerate throughout the 21st century.
How can we equip the citizens of tomorrow with the understanding of science they will need to participate fully in our rapidly changing society and economy? QCA has been working to answer this question over the past five years. From ongoing developing pilots, a new programme of study for science at key stage 4 will be introduced in 2006 to offer students greater flexibility and ensure that school science reflects contemporary science-related issues.
The new Programme of study will cover a core of science equivalent to a single GCSE, focusing on:
* data, evidence, theories and explanations;
* practical and enquiring skills;
* communication skills;
* applications and implications of science.
It also outlines 16 key science topics which all students will be taught, such as:
* human health - the effects of environmental and inherited factors, use and misuse of drugs, medical treatments
* electrical power - transfer and control, its range of applications
* new materials - the natural resources and chemical reactions that produce them
* radiations - their use for communication in the form of waves.
Some courses will focus on scientific literacy and the evaluation of claims about scientific developments. In the York UniversityQCA OCR pilot GCSE "Science for the 21st Century" students have to consider the health risks of mobile phone use, and the personal and public decisions taken as a consequence.
New Applied Science GCSEs focus on the context of the workplace, emphasising problem-solving skills, procedures and processes. For instance, in the context of the chemical industry, it is vital to ensure quality and maximise yield from a given reaction and aspects of safety legislation and financial returns will impact on procedures.
Another approach is to teach science through its applications: electricity through home power requirements, fault-finding in circuits; the chemistry of cooking; the biology of first aid. And there is the study of science for its own sake, harnessing curiosity; designing investigations to explain why the world behaves the way it does.
Further variety in the study of science at key stage 4 will come with the choice of a second or third GCSE. The 'Science for the 21st Century' pilot students choose either an applied or a more academic route. All new qualifications will indicate progression routes to ensure learners are fully aware of their choices.
New exam specifications should be approved by summer 2005 and schools and colleges will receive full details and advice on how to make full use of this greater flexibility, a full year before teaching starts in September 2006.
As the great physicist Richard Feynman said "Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show."
If the new school science can live up to this definition, the next generation will be prepared for whatever opportunities, choices and dilemmas science creates.
* To find out more about 'Science for the 21st Century', visit www.qca.org.ukages1419subjectsscience_1734.html
Martin Hollins is principal Consultant for Science and Technology, QCA