Geology event really rocked

26th April 2013 at 01:00
Students who organised a two-day conference are on a mission to remind everyone that the subject should be a core part of the curriculum, says Jean McLeish

Their T-shirts say "Scotland Rocks" and Perth High students want to make sure it rocks on.

With the support of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS), enthusiastic geology students organised a two-day conference last month for those studying the subject at Higher.

The event attracted key employers and leading academics, including geologist and television presenter Professor Iain Stewart. It even managed to fit in a field trip to St Andrews for delegates, including 35 students from Perth High, Bannockburn High, Fortrose Academy, George Heriot's School and West Calder High.

The idea was to celebrate, and raise the profile of, geology in Scottish schools, where the number of students taking the subject has been falling - there were 64 Higher candidates in 2011 but just 17 last year.

And the Scottish Qualifications Authority's (SQA) decision to phase out Higher geology in 2015 is causing concern among geologists in education and industry who think support for the subject should be a priority. They highlight the demand for geologists across key industries such as oil and gas - major contributors to the UK economy but with a well-documented skills shortage. They are also unhappy that the subject is being distributed across the sciencesin the new National qualifications.

"Scotland is the home of geology and to have schoolkids coming out of Scottish schools not knowing anything about it is a travesty, really," said Professor Stewart, president of the RSGS, at the organisation's Perth headquarters, where the conference was held.

Among the educators present was Peter Harrison, headteacher at Ullapool High, who has taught geology for more than 30 years. "I think the citizens of the future need to know how the earth works. I can understand the SQA's position in that they can't afford to run many subjects that are going to cost them money. I can understand that - but it is a very short-term decision," Mr Harrison said.

"The earth industries are so much at the core of the economy of Scotland. We should be looking at the back-up systems that are needed to ensure its success in schools, not just saying: 'OK, there's a relatively unknown number of candidates, let's just get rid of it' - which is basically where we are."

Some countries are taking a different approach. In England, Japan, Norway and Western Australia, geology teacher numbers are being increased in response to skills shortages in industry and the number of candidates entering for exams in the subject are beginning to rise.

These trends have been collated by Mr Harrison, Dr Ruth Robinson, a senior geology lecturer from the University of St Andrews, and John Banks, a senior petrophysicist from Maersk Oil. "Now is not a time to cut the pipeline of potential graduates for earth sciences industries, and support for adequate earth science teaching in secondary schools should be an educational priority for Scotland," they said.

They believe fewer Scottish students take Higher geology because no geology teachers have been trained since 1985, and with limited numbers of teachers, only around a dozen schools can offer the subject. Of course, with fewer students, geology becomes a target for cutbacks.

Without Higher geology, it is feared that fewer students will go on to study it at university, providing fewer geologists to meet skills shortages in the energy and renewables sectors, mining, engineering and environmental industries.

But the SQA argues that candidate entries in geology at Access 3, Intermediate 1 and 2 and Higher have consistently remained very low and there is not the required infrastructure to support it as a distinct subject for examinations at a national level. It also says it is unaware of any UK university where Higher geology is an entrance requirement.

"In the context of the new National qualifications, geology is considered to be very much a cross-curricular subject, and so aspects of geology are included in the new chemistry, physics, geography, science and environmental science courses," said Roderic Gillespie, head of Curriculum for Excellence development at the SQA.

"We are committed to engaging with all our stakeholders and continuing dialogue with them. To this extent, SQA has met with geology specialists and the RSGS to discuss their concerns."

'PEOPLE JUST THINK YOU LOOK AT ROCKS - THEY DON'T FULLY UNDERSTAND'

Perth High students hope to raise the profile of geology during a visit to the Scottish Parliament.

"Hopefully, the government and local MSPs will see what we have done and see how passionate we are about the subject. And hopefully they will see that others should have the same opportunities as we've had," said Brooke Morran, 17, who helped to organise the Scotland Rocks conference.

She is one of 13 Perth High students studying Higher geology with geography teacher Rachel Hay.

"At a time when we're facing the big challenges as the human race, the biggest challenges - the top 10 challenges - would relate in some way to earth science," Miss Hay said. "But I think with geology people just think you look at rocks - they don't fully understand what's involved."

Another of Ms Hay's students, Fraser Todd, is considering taking geology at university next year: "I think a lot of people might not know what's involved - and if they knew, many of them might take it," he said.

Joyce Gilbert, education officer at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, said: "It may be that Higher geology won't exist in the long term and that would be sad. But whatever comes in its place must be of the quality that Higher geology is at the moment."

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