Do polar bears eat penguins?

1st December 2006 at 00:00
Howler in GCSE textbook for controversial new science course is spotted by Year 9 pupil

Polar bears prey on penguins. Elephants get drunk on rotten fruit. And the age of the Earth was first establised in the late 19th century, using radioactive dating.

Teachers did not know whether to laugh or cry after finding these howlers in new science GCSE textbooks and computer resources, for which schools had paid pound;1,700.

But after they had laughed, many felt like crying over other problems that have surfaced with the exam and its pioneering new style of coursework.

The new science GCSEs have already sparked intense controversy, with critics alleging they are "science for the pub", though many schools defend them as much more lively than traditional exams.

The mistakes were revealed on an exam board's online discussion forum, after a teacher wrote to say that the misconceptions about polar bears'

feeding habits had been uncovered by a Year 9 pupil.

Nelson Thornes's biology textbook, the only resource endorsed by the AQA exam board, has a Did You Know? section which states that polar bears'

colour makes them "less visible to the seals and penguins they hunt".

The teacher said: "Polar bears and penguins live in opposite hemispheres and only meet in passing in zoos, and in Coca Cola adverts. No wonder we have to spend so much time tackling students' misconceptions."

Another teacher wrote to say that a second Nelson Thornes's textbook states that the geologist Arthur Holmes aged the earth at 4.5 billion years in the late 19th century, using radioactive dating. But Holmes was not born until 1890 and, although he pioneered this dating technique, he never estimated the earth as 4.5 billion years old. Radioactivity itself was only discovered at the end of the 19th century.

Another professional seized on a claim that African elephants become drunk after feeding on rotten fruit. National Geographic reported this year that Bristol University scientists had debunked the story as an urban myth.

Elephants would have to eat 1,400 fruits in a very short space of time to get drunk, it said.

Nelson Thornes has accepted the first two as mistakes. It was investigating the third this week.

Other alleged errors included an incorrectly drawn molecule of butene and the introduction of a term apparently unknown to scientists: "fusion cell cloning".

The textbook blunders lend fuel to other criticisms of the new courses. A Birmingham teacher complained that the first set of multiple choice tests, taken last month, had questions with more than one right answer.

He said that the chemistry paper consisted of 36 questions and 1,500 words, to be answered in 30 minutes. Pupils would need to read 50 words a minute and complete one question every 42 seconds. He said this made the test a huge reading challenge, especially for lower achievers.

Teachers were also given incorrect answers to some practice versions of the tests.

The GCSEs feature new-style coursework, in which pupils are asked to conduct an experiment specified by the exam board and are then set a test on it. Teachers welcomed the reduced workload compared with conventional coursework. But at least one of the experiments does not work, they said.

The courses have divided teachers because some of the content of double science GCSEs has been removed, leading to accusations of "dumbing down"

from some universities and schools.

A Nelson Thornes spokeswoman said that its resources had been very popular and the section on polar bears had already been changed, so the vast majority of textbooks did not feature these errors.

She added: "We have had an awful lot of positive feedback, also some of the feedback you are picking up. We would not acknowledge that the resources have been rushed out. We have been working on this for a long time."

An AQA spokeswoman said: "When a new specification comes out, we ensure that we have procedures in place to deal with any issues that may arise.

Our online forums are one way in which we are doing that."

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