Let's get practical

5th September 2003 at 01:00
The new science GCSE looks set to change the "geeky" image, as Sue Learner reports

Investigating a murder mystery and learning about forensic science is just another school day for pupils studying for the new applied science GCSE.

Only 100 or so schools in England and just two in Wales have taken the leap into uncharted waters and signed up for the revolutionary course. At the end of the first year of the course, other schools were lining up in droves to teach this practical science syllabus. "We have had considerable interest in the course. It has proved very popular," says a spokeswoman for the Qualifications Curriculum Authority.

This new initiative turns its back on the conventional academic syllabus and concentrates instead on the practical side.

Two pilot schools in Wales, St Alban's RC High School in Pontypool and Bettws High School in Newport, have been training their pupils as amateur detectives. John Palmer, head of science at St Alban's says: "We found it helped them to put the work into context. So we set up evidence from a crime scene. We gave them things like a suspect's muddy boot and they had to find out whether the mud came from the same place as where the victim was murdered. We gave them water that had been taken from the victim's stomach so they could work out if the victim had drowned in sea water or a river."

This new course looks set to shed science's geeky image and John Palmer believes that, in five years, most schools in the country will teach applied science GCSE.

Last year, the Commons Science and Technology Committee criticised GCSE biology, physics and chemistry for their insistence on rote learning of facts and for making practical work a "dull and tedious activity".

For John Palmer, the applied course is a refreshing change: "It is something we have been waiting for to come along. We have been pushing them along the academic route but now we have them hooked on something that is a bit more real. We are very pleased with it. It has freed us up to do things that are interesting."

The course is ideal for exam-shy pupils as the coursework makes up 66 per cent of the final mark and it is a double-award GCSE.

"It is not for the most academically able as the more academic pupils will continue to do chemistry, biology and physics," he says.

The school has been working in tandem with Bettws High School in Newport to produce lesson plans and units of work for the GCSE.

"We have a syllabus and it gives us guidance but it is up to us to interpret that," says John Palmer, who teaches two classes of 15 pupils in each. The syllabus is made up of three units - developing scientific skills, science and the needs of society, and science and work.

"This course teaches how vital science is and shows the pupils how every second of our life is shaped by the work of scientists," he says.

"It is not learning for the sake of it. This course helps them to think out of their box a bit more."

John Palmer admits he gets a buzz out of the course but says you need a lot of energy to keep it going. He warns schools thinking of embarking on the course not to be too ambitious about doing things they do not have the equipment for.

Lister Community School in Newham, East London, has also been running the pilot course this year, with three classes made up of 67 pupils in total.

Science teacher Rob Jones says: "Due to the reduced academic content in the course we aimed it at the more vocationally oriented pupils but warned them it is not an easy option." In fact, the pupils were shocked by the amount of coursework, he says.

Rob Jones and course co-ordinator Cathy Mathurin wrote half of the course each. They hope to pool their experience and hard work with other schools and are in the process of putting their lesson plans on the internet.

Trips are an important part of the course and pupils got to see the more macabre side of science at the Bodyworlds exhibition in London earlier this year. "We were doing a unit on science and the needs of society and I wanted them to see how science has become popularised. They got to see the gory side of science and thought it was brilliant," says Rob Jones.

He admits that being at the forefront of this new initiative has been a huge uphill struggle and claims that over the past year a lot of schools have been operating a wait-and-see policy.

He has been busy recently fielding calls from other schools asking for feedback on the course.

He says: "This course is certainly not a perfect solution but it is a step in the right direction."

The examining boards which run the course are:Exexcel, OCR, AQA, CCEA, WJEC. For further information, go to www.vocationallearning.org.ukdatabanksection.asp?id=160

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