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For physicist, read Scots masochist

Scientists are at loggerheads over how their subject should change, but physicists hope to build a consensus for a new school curriculum in the 21st century, a symposium heard.

Many teachers and academics think children are not learning enough about science and how it affects our everyday lives - science can no longer be divorced from moral and social responsibility, as the Chernobyl disaster and the BSE crisis have proved.

But some think there is too much science in schools for pupils of all abilities, while others believe there is too little.

These were some of the conclusions at the 150-strong symposium at the ASE's annual meeting.

The "Science Education for the Future" symposium, co-ordinated by Professor Ros Driver and Jonathan Osborne, of King's College, London, was so over-subscribed that many people had to be turned away from the Birmingham University venue.

Professor Driver asked association members to list on three cards their views on the achievements of science education in the last 10 years, the problems in the subject, and solutions.

The problems were many and varied. A significant number were unhappy about science's image: "Science is part of culture: we need a David Attenborough, " said one.

Others thought science was made to seem too difficult or too elitist. "It's not fun any more," and "Rescue the exciting part from oblivion," were other responses.

There was a feeling among many that the national curriculum was too prescriptive; there was little time for creativity, and scientists had lost control of their subject. There was no time to develop the teacher-pupil relationship.

One ASE member said too many pupils had a "So what?" attitude.

Many believed the solution to the problems was a smaller curriculum. Others recommended removing the barriers between arts and science subjects. There was also concern about the mismatch between GCSE and A-level science, and the dichotomy between technology and science.

A disagreement at the end of the symposium about the co-ordinators' decision to focus the meeting on secondary school science was a recurring theme throughout the three-day conference.

Several members felt that, since science was also now an important part of the primary curriculum, a meeting to discuss the future of science education should not "marginalise" primary teachers.

But the conclusions were not all grim. Big achievements of the last 10 years included science for all at 16; balanced science; the introduction of science in primary schools; scientific investigation; and the growth of vocational science exams at 16-plus.

Jonathan Osborne said the proportion of students studying physics remained "fairly constant" but most reports were predicting a shortage of qualified scientists and technicians.

Many students studied physics to advance their careers, rather than because they liked the subject. "If you study physics there is a high chance of being a masochist," he said, adding that for some reason more students enjoyed physics in Scotland than the rest of the country.

He said it was notable that the more scientists a country had, the bigger its gross domestic product."Can we afford not to educate children in science? Should post-16 education include science, maths and a language for all?" he asked.

Professor Driver and Mr Osborne will be organising a series of seminars to discuss a new science curriculum for the next century, culminating in a meeting at the Royal Society in November, and a book.

The seminars will be open to teachers, Government advisers, ASE members, and industry and further education representatives.

The two physicists, who hope to build a consensus and influence school science, are liaising with the ASE's Science Education 2000 consultation, which aims to influence the next national curriculum review.

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