Controversial issues like genetic engineering can be the spark that stimulates an interest in science, but teachers must learn to relax the reins a little to make it work, says Roger Lock.
For future citizens to fully participate in a democracy, they need to know enough to critically scrutinise political decisions. The public needs to understand science, but the national curriculum barely addresses this important political dimension.
In recent history attempts to switch the focus on to the public domain have foundered, sometimes in the hands of the very people whose decisions need to be scrutinised, the politicians. In 1983, proposals for a common curriculum at 16-plus, developed by HM Inspectorate and a host of professional associations and industrialists, argued that this syllabus should emphasise the wider social and economic implications of physics. But the proposals were rejected by the then Secretary of State for Education, Sir Keith Joseph.
The 1991 version of the science curriculum said that pupils should have the chance to consider the basic principles of genetic engineering and be aware of any ethical considerations involved. But the new version, to be taught from this month, says only that "pupils should be taught the basic principles of cloning, selective breeding and genetic engineering". The consideration of ethical issues has been dropped.
Another way the drive for public understanding of science has been marginalised is the suggestion that consideration of moral and ethical issues should be the preserve of only the most able 16-year-olds. That was the message of the 1991 curriculum which put statements relating to ethics only at levels 9 and 10.
The limitations of such thinking were illustrated by some recent research on pupils' views of applying techniques of genetic engineering to microbes, plants and animals. Year 10 students were involved in activities which gave information about how genetic engineering was carried out. They were asked to look at case studies involving applications of the technique and were then invited to discuss the issues, state their views, show how their position was supported by evidence and distinguish between opinion and hearsay.
Making views subject to peer review in this way can be a threatening activity which requires sensitive handling and debriefing by teachers, particularly where a minority view is forcibly presented and defended.
Would you support the genetic engineering of animals so that they produce medicines in their milk that can be used to save the lives of human haemophiliacs? Is it acceptable to genetically engineer cows to produce authentic human milk for babies whose mothers cannot breastfeed them? Should we engineer cows to produce milk with improved nutritional value for humans to drink?
By centring discussion on a series of issues that move from life-saving medical reasons to nutritional and even aesthetic reasons, it is possible to explore in which organisms, if any, pupils are prepared to support genetic engineering and for what purposes.
The response from those involved in my study group was very positive, with more than 90 per cent claiming to understand the work, or some of it, and more than 80 per cent finding it interesting. With just four pupils in a class of 30 switched off this could mean real progress.
There is a major mismatch between the world of science in school and that available to pupils through the media. Consider a term's work for Year 10 students centring on gases, gas laws, the structure of elements, the periodic table, emulsions and foams, radioactivity and oxidation. Now contrast that with the output by terrestrial television in a single week of more than 25 science-related topics including urban foxes, the third sex, chemical warfare, DNA from pharaohs, information war on battlefields and greyhound euthanasia - and that doesn't include the science-based issues in soaps. No contest.
So what are the implications for science teachers and those involved in their training? Obviously there is the issue of devoting time to the controversial societal issues in our science teaching; to build them into work schemes. But this is not enough if a didactic, teacher-centred method of delivery is favoured. Pupils should be offered ways of working which provide for the development of scientific attitudes, such as respect for evidence, attitudes based on and supported by knowledge. Such approaches bring with them a strong demand for knowledge to be up-to-date, accurate and subjected to a rigorous range of perspectives in its interpretation.
Presenting students with apparent inconsistencies in their attitudes is a powerful way to generate discussion. My research study showed that a majority of students supported the idea of genetically engineering sheep to produce human medicines, but that a similar majority disapproved of inserting genes from human cells into the fertilised eggs of sheep.
Showing students that the production of human medicines from sheep required the insertion of human genes into fertilised eggs raised a real dilemma akin to that of disapproving of killing animals for food but wearing leather jackets, belts, shoes and purses.
It is important to consider not just the ethical issues faced by pupils in their daily lives, but to put them in the position of the scientists who face such decisions in relation to their work. Are they as hard, uncaring and dispassionate as the media sometimes portray?
If we are anxious about addressing the decline in the proportion of students who study science beyond the years of compulsory education, if we care about 11 to 16-year-olds who tell us that science leaves them bored, if we are concerned to increase the number of women studying science, there are compelling reasons for including more work with a strong social, moral and ethical base in a more prominent position in the curriculum.
Initial and in-service training of science teachers needs to address the range of teaching and learning styles with which science teachers are conversant such that it includes discussion, debate, role play and others.
Such approaches need to assume a more central part in our methodology and we must come to feel comfortable with them, if we believe in the importance of an informed population with an objective view of science and scientists based on experience, knowledge and understanding.
Roger Lock is a senior lecturer in science education at the School of Education, University of Birmingham.