Teaching in biosciences needs to be practical and relevant to everyday life if the UK is to keep its global lead, writes Michael Reiss
The UK is an acknowledged world leader in bioscience research and development. However, unless steps are taken urgently to improve bioscience in schools and universities, the UK's leadership will be threatened. The biosciences could easily go the way of physics and chemistry, with falling roles and concerns about quality.
Over the past year, the Biosciences Federation has been investigating what needs to be done to prevent such a potentially disastrous situation arising.
While biosciences remain popular, there are grounds for concern: much school biology is outdated, fails to enthuse pupils or deals inadequately with the social and ethical implications. Much careers advice is poor, hence students do not appreciate the possible range of jobs.
Many bioscience students are weak in chemistry, maths and physics, and find the cross-disciplinary nature of modern bioscience difficult; and some core disciplines (pharmacology, biochemistry and microbiology) are not recruiting as well at university as they used to.
Advances in the biosciences offer major benefits to the health and wealth of society. Education in these subjects lies at the heart of the country's ability to maximise the potential of such advances.
We need to maintain a flow of well-trained, high-calibre young people into research and development or technical careers. We must also ensure all students have a reasonable level of scientific literacy so that they can make informed decisions as mature citizens on the acceptability of such things as embryonic stem-cell cloning and genetically modified food. These are moral dilemmas for which citizens need to be well prepared.
The curriculum for each age group must ensure appropriate learning progression, suit the full spread of individuals and be a suitable platform for the next stage of education. Too often, there is unnecessary repetition of content between successive stages.
Subject content must be kept up to date and concentrate on key principles and concepts, not excessive detail. Knowledge in the biosciences is expanding rapidly, thus making it essential to be selective in deciding content. Students must be able to understand and apply key concepts and have the ICT skills to be able to use more detailed material as required.
The excessive content of many secondary and post-16 courses restricts open-ended activities and extended practical work.
Course content needs to take account of the personal, social and ethical implications of the subject from key stage 1 through to A-level, and pupils must tackle the big questions that advances in the biosciences pose to society.
Practical work, including fieldwork and investigations, should be given greater prominence. Genuine concerns about health and safety and respect for living organisms must not result in poorer learning experiences.
Assessment at all ages must reward students who can demonstrate that they have learned intended skills and knowledge and can apply them in new situations. Current national assessment arrangements for students can distort the curriculum and stifle learning. Assessment too frequently measures the ability merely to regurgitate facts.
Research is needed to discover why it is hard to achieve high A-level grades in biology, physics and chemistry, and how this may be overcome.
Changes, though, should avoid any dilution in standards.
Students must receive informed and up-to-date careers advice before making subject choices at ages 14, 16 and subsequently. Science-related careers advice in most schools is often poor.
Bioscience students at A-level should be made aware of the advantages of also studying another science or maths. They will need a good grounding in physical science and maths to cope with university bioscience courses and the cross-disciplinary nature of much bioscience research.
Universities should not overspecialise in the early stages of bioscience courses. A broad first-year curriculum builds skills and a knowledge base in related fields and enables students to make a more informed decision on specialisation later.
Undergraduate courses need to take account of the rapid advances in the biosciences and industry's requirement for graduates with the knowledge and skills needed in a competitive international market. Funding must be sufficient to provide appropriate teaching facilities and practical training. Many bioscience departments are having to cut back on practical work.
To deliver these vital improvements, teachers and lecturers need high-quality continuing professional development to help them to develop their teaching skills and update their knowledge, and time in their work schedules to engage fully with this development. Technicians, too, need appropriate continuing professional development. The national network of science learning centres should be able to help.
If we can get it right, the biosciences will be a major success story. Get it wrong and we begin to spiral downwards.
Michael Reiss is professor of science education at the Institute of Education. He chaired the Biosciences Federation working group that produced Enthusing the Next Generation, which will be available at www.bsf.ac.uk