New project to bac science

24th April 2009 at 01:00

Designed to give substance to the sixth-year, stretch the best students and ease the shift to post-school studies, the new science baccalaureate will be offered for the first time in some 100 Scottish schools next session.

But despite the fact that the qualification does not officially launch until the end of this month, it has already come in for criticism: "schools will struggle to deliver it"; "universities have yet to recognise it"; "A Curriculum for Excellence is enough to contend with."

Beyond these instant opinions, though, the people with direct knowledge of the new qualification, and of the students who intend taking it, seem positive. A key point is that the right model means little additional work for schools, says Val Corry, Balfron High headteacher.

"Our link with Forth Valley College is what makes the difference. Their science department, the students and the industrial partners will be taking a lot of responsibility. So schools won't have to devote much extra teacher time to the new qualification," she says.

The baccalaureates in science and languages comprise two Advanced Highers, one Higher and one interdisciplinary project - the component that provides added value but makes the new qualification seem problematic to some.

But in the Forth Valley College model, developed in collaboration with Falkirk, Stirling and Clackmannanshire schools, the practical project and links with industrial partners are organised and run by the college, leaving schools to concentrate on the exams.

This collaboration builds on the college's existing links with schools and on its longstanding expertise in the sciences - stimulated and sustained by demand fom the Grangemouth complex for science specialists, says Joanna McGillivray, depute head of applied science and computing. "Schools already send their students to us for the practical component of Advanced Higher sciences. It gives them access to modern equipment and resources they don't have in schools, and to the skills needed to use them. We can provide organisation and support for projects carried out by many students."

That same structure, with the college at its core, delivers added value by developing skills that might seem surprising for a science qualification. "Students will be working alongside new people from other schools," says Mrs McGillivray. "They'll be developing their interpersonal skills."

A different peer group is just the start, says biology lecturer Monica MacLeod, who leads the baccalaureate project at Forth Valley College. "Complaints about science graduates are that they don't have interpersonal skills, they can't network, they don't know how to speak to people in the real world.

"These new projects will build students' confidence, make them much more employable. It's about citizenship, enterprise, employability, confidence and communication - as much as about scientific skills."

That broader educational purpose of the baccalaureate has not been widely publicised, but it is apparent in the exemplar materials provided by SQA, says Dr Mac-Leod. "They've an example of a girl looking at low-fat foods and Type 2 diabetes. She carries out chemical analyses, speaks to people working in supermarkets, gives presentations in primary schools, prepares a leaflet about her findings."

Forth Valley College is convinced that the new science baccalaureate will be highly valued by universities, employers, parents and sixth-year students. So are the teachers in the schools taking part - roughly 100 around Scotland so far. There are a few issues, but not necessarily those that have been widely aired.

"We're working with schools in three different authorities, so transport won't always be easy for the three hours on a Friday that students come here to work on their project," says Mrs McGillivray. "So we're developing delivery through our virtual learning environment. Aspects of planning and evaluation, which are large parts of the project, can be done in this way."

As the only college which accepted the invitation onto the qualifications design team, Forth Valley has been working closely with the Scottish Qualifications Authority, and will be delivering continuing professional development to teachers, on student planning and evaluation of projects in particular.

Val Corry feels strongly that the name of the new qualification is wrong. "It should have been science and engineering baccalaureate. Engineering is so important to our economy, but lots of young people have the wrong impression of it. So that was a missed opportunity."

There is one fundamental issue for the future health of science - and engineering - in Scotland, and the economy as a whole: high achievers in school science desert it at university for courses that offer higher status and better-paying careers.

Will the new science baccalaureate raise the status of science in these students' minds and convince them of the delights and rewards of a career in science itself? We'll soon see.

The first baccalaureates will be awarded in August 2010. SQA launches the science baccalaureate in Stirling on April 27.

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