Let's show the human drama behind the theory;Sounding off;Science;Secondary

26th June 1998 at 01:00
There is an aspect of science education that is too often overlooked: the rather neglected and very human scientific process of innovation.

School science can easily become detached from the scientific world outside school. The major battles to wrestle scientific secrets from nature and to develop useful and intriguing devices from simple ideas are not adequately represented in the national curriculum or in A-level science courses.

An anecdote illustrates the point. The A-level syllabus I studied at school prescribed "The electron microscope". In practice, the teaching of this topic boiled down to a diagram on the board and half a side of notes. No criticism of the teacher is implied here as this was all the tight syllabus allowed. It was not until 10 years later that I learned something of the reality of the innovations that led to a functional electron microscope.

Some of the key developments were:

* making the filament pointed in order to obtain a coherent beam of electrons.

* development of an electron gun assembly that enabled separate control of the dia-meter and intensity of the electron beam.

* development of rubber gaskets capable of sealing the many joints against a high vacuum under conditions in which the joints are opened and closed frequently.

* construction of specimen stages that can be used for a wide variety of temperatures.

* development of high-stability high-voltage supplies necessary to achieve satisfactory image resolution.

* removal and correction of astigmatism in the objective lens resulting from imperfections in the pole pieces of the electromagnets.

I then realised what a crucial aspect of real science had been missing at school: the excitement, the stumbling for truth, the blind alleys of trying to solve scientific problems. The essential scientific process of innovation had not even been considered. And a valuable teaching opportunity of illustrating and reinforcing key issues had been missed through pressure of content and the need to complete the syllabus.

Although I have chosen an example from post-16 science education, the point is equally valid for earlier secondary years. A study of stories or case histories dealing with innovations would provide a fertile ground for teaching school science.

Such studies can be used to:

* illustrate scientific principles.

* make the subject more interesting.

* emphasise problem-solving approaches to unsolved scientific problems.

* discuss the human and social interactions involved in all scientific work.

* consider the impact of scientific innovations on society.

The philosophy of laying down so rigidly what is to be taught has made the curriculum inflexible, and pupils find some of the material of little interest. If the sciences are to appeal to a wider range of pupils they need to be seen more in human terms, and one way of doing this is to look at how scientists make their discoveries. More pupils may then be encouraged to take study of the sciences further.

David Thompson is a lecturer in physics and science education at the University of HuddersfieldIf you have a strong opinion on a curriculum issue, write to Brendan O'Malley, secondary curriculum editor, TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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