Qualified to put the world to rights

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Teenagers wanting to get to grips with some of the biggest questions ever to have faced scientists and philosophers are to be given the chance to collect university points while doing so.

A new AS-level in the history, philosophy and ethics of science is being piloted from September. Euthanasia, creationism and genetics are among the subjects students will be encouraged to research.

Pupils will be assessed on the merits of an 8,000-word research project of their choice, which they will present to their peers.

The new qualification, being launched by the Edexcel board with backing from the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust, has also won praise from Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools.

He sees it as a possible model for future approaches across many subjects under his review of secondary qualifications.

The first part of the course will introduce pupils to scientific reasoning, the nature and status of scientific truth and central ideas about ethics and values.

Several historical and philosophical areas are suggested for discussion, from the story of how quantum mechanics developed to the ethics of cloning.

Dr John Taylor, course co-ordinator, said: "These are the kind of questions that kids ask in science lessons. Normally, the teacher allows 15 minutes' discussion, and then says 'right, back to work'.

"Now, students can spend the whole course discussing them." The aim of the qualification, being piloted in 20 schools before going nationwide next year, is for students to have a say in what is studied in lessons.

Students will have to devise their own research project and demonstrate the skills they have learned in assessing alternative approaches to a contemporary or historical scientific problem. The course will be completely assessed by teachers, with moderation by Edexcel.

Its designers believe that some teachers may find the flexibility of what is taught daunting, while the assessment will be radically different from conventional science coursework.

They acknowledge that research projects are vulnerable to plagiarism but say that pupils will have to defend their findings so cheating will be obvious.

They said they had had enquiries from hundreds of teachers after presenting the course at the ASE conference.


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