A brand new image

5th May 2000 at 01:00
Susan Greenfield tells Sandra Heavenstone about her vision for science.

Science education "needs a rebrand", says Susan Greenfield, this year's president of the Association for Science Education. It should be presented in a way that makes it "as enjoyable as going to the cinema". The Oxford professor of pharmacology, who was appointed the first woman director of the Royal Institution in 1998 - the year she also received the Michael Faraday medal from the Royal Society for her contribution to the public understanding of science - says: "We need a science curriculum that is not simply academic but life-enhancing. It is beyond doubt that the impact science will have in the future will raise ethical and moral issues that can only be met by a scientifically literate society.

"People are turned off by the language of science. They switch off to words like gene, clone, atom, computer chip, cell and black hole, because they do not feel comfortable with the concepts. We cannot easily comprehend the time and space scale of science concepts that are either very small or very large, either a billion light years or huge incomprehensible distances. If you're talking of things that can only be seen under an electron microscope, so tiny that they're invisible, not everyone can relate to these things and cannot connect the relevance of science to their daily lives. People say, 'What if there are black holes out there, it doesn't pay the electricity bill'."

The "wow factor" of programmes such as Tomorrow's World grabs people's attention with its zappy modern inventions, but, says Susan Greenfield, "it is sensationalist in that it doesn't sufficiently help to bridge the gap in scientific understanding".

A problem for many people "is the way that they were taught science at school. They either got bored, found it difficult to follow or it was too smelly".

Her own school did not offer science on the curriculum. "It wasn't unil I began studying medicine at university and carried out the dissection of the brain that I became excited about science as a subject." So how can this excitement be generated in schools? "Scientists need to move towards a more multidisciplinary approach to their subject. We need an equivalent O-level in sciencearts. Anyone studying the sciences should also take subsidiary arts subjects. Our range of A-levels in this country is also too narrow in comparison with Europe and the States."

Susan Greenfield currently heads a group of 18 scientists at Oxford, carrying out research into neurodegeneration, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. She is "astonished" that the brain is not on the A-level science syllabus. "We need to study the chemical systems targeted by drugs, and the side effects. People need to be more informed about the drugs that they take - it would be invalable to understand how drugs such as Prozac work. However, as we face a future that might standardise the individual, not just genetically but by an IT-dominated environment, we should have as a priority the need to retain and celebrate our individuality."

How can we develop an effective science curriculum for the future and what issues should have priority? "The most important developments in science now involve the interface between the physical and biomedical sciences and the interface between information technology and biology and the study of robotics. The design of computers that are built to be like humans would head the timetable. In order to understand the body we now need a knowledge of computers and their networks. Nano science, the design of devices that can be put inside the body that will enable us to understand the specifics of how the body works, with a precision we've never had before. All this would require the use of high-tech labs within schools."

She would like to see more partnering between the state and independent schools, the sharing of lab facilities and pooling of resources. "Roedean school, for example, where I am speaking this month, has invited the local comprehensive school to join them for the session. Universities and industries should also offer the use of their laboratory facilities, so that teachers can feel that they are plugged in to the wider community."

As president of the ASE, she sees her role as a supportive one for teachers. "The need for strict adherence to curriculum guidelines means that they can no longer use the creativity and imagination needed within their teaching. I am concerned that teachers from school through to university level are having the pride they placed in their profession removed." And the Office for Standards in Education, she says, "seems to focus more on bringing teachers to account than inspiring them".

She wants to provide a much needed self-help group for teachers to enable them to network and exchange ideas. "Wonderful gadgets are ineffectual without enthusiastic teachers." Teachers need to develop links with the scientific community as a whole, she says. "They would then feel more respected and excited about their subject. The ethics of the new scientific discovery is changing society, so that instead of ignoring universities, society will be turning to them."

Susan Greenfield is currently preparing a major six-part BBC2 series on the brain and the mind * Tom Phillips's electronic portrait - the first one ever - of Susan Greenfield is made up of more than 12,000 frames and takes 10 minutes to complete its cycle. It is part of the exhibition 'Defining Features: Scientific and Medical Portraits 1660-2000' at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 17 September. Tel: 020 7306 0055 or 020 7312 2463.

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