Broad view of our world

7th March 2003 at 00:00
At the start of National Science Week, Professor Graham Durant kicks off five pages on changes in learning and teaching

Human cloning, stem cell research, E. coli 157, DNA profiling, genetically modified crops, irradiation of food, MMR vaccines, mobile phone safety, bio-terrorism, environmental change I There is no shortage of scientific issues around worth debating.

Like it or not, the world is increasingly dominated by science and technology and these issues affect us all in various ways, including economic and political. So, how can we prepare youngsters for their lives and roles in future society and what can we do to help them engage with such issues once they have left education?

When most people leave school, their attitudes towards science have been largely fixed and individuals emerge from the education system either interested, and in some cases greatly enthusiastic, about science or utterly uninterested. It is for this reason that schools need to introduce more science in its social context.

A report from the Wellcome Trust (Valuable Lessons: engaging with the social context of science in schools, July 2001) recognised that today's teenagers are missing out on essential classroom discussion about the social and ethical impact of scientific developments.

The report and subsequent follow-up work argued that the traditional test tube and text book approach to science in secondary and post-16 education should be enhanced by more debate and exploration of the social dimension of science.

One of the challenges lies in how to fit such issues into an already overcrowded curriculum. Should they form a key component of any science curriculum or would such matters be best dealt with in humanities, where teachers may be better prepared to handle controversy in the classroom? A cross-curricular approach might be the ideal solution, although with the current lack of appetite for further curriculum change this may prove unworkable.

Introducing issues to teenagers through drama seems to be emerging as a useful medium. The Science Takes Centre Stage project funded by the Wellcome Trust and the work of theatre groups such as Y Touring show how useful this approach can be.

Outside the classroom, what does the broader community need in order to engage it with scientific issues? The media is generally responsible for flagging up a particular issue initially. It has an important role in the balanced reporting of any issues, though balance rarely sells newspapers.

The controversy last year over the popular BBC television drama Fields of Gold, in which the BBC was accused of "peddling ludicrous lies" by some scientists involved in the genetic modification and microbiological research featured, showed how difficult it can be to balance science and science fiction using an entertainment format.

The Internet is an important tool for finding out information. However, with so much data available, we must learn to recognise which sources can be trusted.

With both the Web and the mass media, we have to learn how to discriminate between science, non-science and nonsense. We must learn to read beyond the headlines.

Youngsters need to be stimulated into thinking about issues and science centres and science theatre can play an important role in this. In various science centres and festivals there has been movement away from the bangs and flashes of science shows to more thoughtful presentations that introduce contemporary issues, as well as often spectacular demonstrations.

Simple, interactive exhibits based largely on physics have been enhanced by ones that try to engage with issues.

The Glasgow Science Centre has much to commend it in this respect. Its Science in the Dock mechanical puppet show introduces the issues of animal experimentation, transplant surgery and cloning in a light-hearted but thought-provoking way. Other multimedia exhibits introduce contrasting expert opinions on issues such as robotic technology and spare-part surgery.

Nature's Reality Gameshow is one of the Glasgow Science Centre's new shows funded by Scottish Natural Heritage. It uses the Big Brother television format to introduce Scottish environmental issues. The show runs from March 15 to April 27 and will tour thereafter.

Meanwhile, the Generation Science shows from the Edinburgh International Science Festival (April 11-22) will take some of the new generation science shows to schools across Scotland.

This could be the way forward for the introduction of science in its social context, with science centres and festivals playing an important role in adding value to formal classroom teaching.

In the classroom, we should seek to break the constraints of the curriculum and introduce more issues of science by cross-curricular activities, possibly within a broader citizenship strand.

In addition, it is essential there is room in the curriculum to allow teachers to lead discussions about issues. It is vital that teenagers are given the opportunity to take part in informed debate about emerging scientific issues.

Graham Durant is professor of science interpretation and communication at the University of Glasgow Edinburgh Science Festival, Glasgow Science Centre,

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