How much knowledge does a primary teacher need to teach science? Can the key facts still be taught without a proper understanding of the subject?
The Teacher Training Agency wants all primary science teachers to have at least a GCSE in science. Even if this were possible over time, would that be good enough?
These are just a few of the questions worrying lecturers in the run-up to the science national curriculum due in September 1998 for trainee teachers.
Two talks at the Association for Science Education annual meeting showed that much work needs to be done over the next 20 months if scientists are to reach a consensus about how primary teachers should teach science and how much they need to know.
Max de Boo, senior lecturer in education, primary science and technology at Hertfordshire University, told one group that out of a sample of 265 postgraduate and undergraduate non-scientists, nearly 60 per cent gave what was regarded as the wrong answer to the question: two stones, one small and one large, are dropped from the same height at the same time. Which hits the ground first? (Answer: they both hit the ground at the same time because of the force of gravity).
Most of these students had a science GCSE, the minimum requirement the TTA says primary teachers should have to teach science.
But, said Mr de Boo, many students with GCSE science (level 8) had a limited understanding of the subject.
A similar debate about whether knowledge and understanding can be divorced from each other at primary level also preoccupied a group led by John Carter from the science education section (SES) of the lecturers' union, NATFHE.
The group polarised into those who thought that good scientific knowledge was vital for the primary teacher and those who thought a good, enthusiastic teacher could teach science well, but might not necessarily be able to gain a GCSE in the subject.
There was also a feeling that lecturers in initial training could only do just that - "push the boat out" or "wind up the spring" and hope that trainees would continue their science education.
The debate was based on a paper by Alan Goodwin, of the Department of Sciences Education at Manchester Metropolitan University and chairman of NATFHE SES, after a one-day conference for science tutors.
The tutors are concerned that level 8 is not equivalent at all key stages and has not been defined in relation to adult understanding.
The paper, which has been welcomed by teacher trainers, says: "Teachers' level of understanding needs to be sufficient to enable them to work confidently with pupils who are capable of attaining the highest levels for their key stage . . .
"Learning to teach science is seen as a complex and continuing process. The major issue is growing and sustaining the motivation, enjoyment and satisfaction from personal learning of science. This is a prerequisite to confident and effective teaching of any subject."
The focus for Mr de Boo's talk was an ASE-funded task group set up to influence national policy on primary science.
Primary scientists involved in the project are anxious to disseminate good practice, organise a conference, educate teachers who are science beginners, and try to make the subject of science exciting and stimulating.
The new SCIcentre for initial teacher training in primary school science in Leicester, funded by the Society of Chemical Industries, supports the project.
Tina Jarvis, the centre's director, said the society had taken a far-sighted decision to tackle the unpopularity of science by starting with the early years and student teachers.
So far the SCIcentre has visited 20 teacher-training institutions, and plans to talk to the remaining 50.