British science is the real thing

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
A physicist at one of the world's leading research centres wants Europe to adopt a British-style system of learning science through experiment.

Professor Jose Mariano Gago claims lessons must mirror real science if students are to meet industry's demands and to stem the exodus to social and biological sciences.

Professor Gago, who is at the forefront of sub-atomic physics research at CERN, Geneva, told a recent conference in Lisbon that experimental work develops skills that pupils need for the job market such as problem solving and team work.

He praised the national curriculum in England and Wales for its investigation-based approach and said France and Germany could learn from it.

"Physics and chemistry are more experimental in England," said Professor Gago, who is running a Pounds 354,000 research project on the future of science teaching in Europe at the Instituto de Prospectiva in Lisbon. "The United Kingdom is in the lead compared to France and Germany. Of course you can teach science in other ways, more discursively with the teacher speaking and individual study for exams. They will gain knowledge but they won't get the same skills that employers are speaking about."

He said success in experimental work was less influenced by a pupil's social background than traditional study, giving children from poorer backgrounds a better chance.

Although research shows that science curricula across the European Union nations are broadly similar, great differences exist within countries.

Part of the remit of the institute's research was to increase the equality of opportunity, said Professor Gago, who has worked at the Conseil European pour la Recherche Nucleaire (CERN), in Geneva. Here extreme conditions of temperature and pressure, which occurred at the beginning of the universe, are simulated to study quarks and other sub-atomic particles.

Attempts in Chicago to increase experimental work in science had led to wider interest in the subject, he said. The approach did not need specialist equipment, but should involve working scientists in using their experience in primary and secondary schools. "Of course you need laboratories, but most of all you need training for teachers and the time to look at problem solving. "

However, Dr Joan Solomon, of the Oxford University education department, told the Lisbon conference that there was a danger that experiments in lessons ended up as "recipe work" rather than true investigative study.

Earlier, the conference heard that Pounds 35 billion from the European Union's Social Fund was being pumped into Europe's most depressed regions over the next six years, mostly for education and training, and that there was a continuing trend away from engineering, physics and chemistry towards the more popular social and bio-logical sciences.

Delegates were also told that scientific employers in Britain had a priority for people who had learning skills, who could be re-trained, and had generic skills applicable to all businesses such as data handling, team spirit and information technology.

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