Ring in the new
At the beginning of the 21st century, science seems to have reached its apotheosis. Whether it concerns the issues of stem cell research or how we dispose of our mountains of household rubbish, science increasingly permeates and even dominates our daily language. This is perhaps why today's students are known as the "genome generation".
Such a state of affairs should make school science a vibrant, contemporary subject, one whose relevance is unquestioned. But is this the reality?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. The topics that dominate contemporary science include informatics, computers, communication systems, lasers, modern cosmology, polymer chemistry, and molecular genetics and its applications. Yet none of these features in the school curriculum.
Another concern is that most pupils still leave school with the impression that science is a process of experimentation and "discovery". Yet scientists do a lot more than experiment: they devise models, interpret and evaluate data, attend conferences, construct routine analyses. Some never go near an experiment in their professional lifetimes.
And what of the teaching of the values that distinguish good science from bad? Ideas such as empirical adequacy, predictive validity, originality, simplicity and fruitfulness do not command the attention they deserve.
Is the purpose of science education to give children the "technical facts", as David Milliband, the minister for school standards, would have it? Or should it give pupils an overview of the great ideas that have shaped our thinking about the material world? The summary judgment of the recent House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was that science education was managing neither of these tasks well.
Such dissatisfactions have led to the devising and piloting of a new course for science education, 21st Century Science. The University of York has developed the course specification with the Nuffield Curriculum Centre; the two groups are devising the curriculum materials, examination questions and support materials.
So, how will the course be different? For a start, it will have a core which is distinctive and covers two major areas. One of these involves the "grand ideas" of science and offers a set of major "science explanations". The other concerns "ideas about science" - exploring data and its limitations, correlation and cause, the role of theories, the nature of the scientific community, issues of risk, and making decisions about science and technology.
This twin-track approach will form the basis of a single science course at GCSE and offer an innovative and more appropriate course than the current mishmash that constitutes single science.
For those who want to go on and take a double science GCSE, there will be a set of academic and applied modules that will prepare students for future study. The great value of this approach is that for a student who has taken only single science and then wants to do more, additional modules can be picked up later. This offers a flexibility which the existing one-size-fits-all curriculum does not provide.
More fundamentally, what this course offers is a way of breaking the mould that has formed school science for the past 100 years. The course will consist of a set of compulsory core modules; for those who wish to pursue further study there will be an optional group of extra modules containing all the usual suspects, plus ones on "Reasoning Scientifically" and "Synthesis and Analysis". Alternatively, for those interested in applied science there will be another set of optional modules.
The specification for the course is due to be in place this month and the pilot to begin in September 2003.
Jonathan Osborne is professor of Science Education at King's College, London. For more information, visit www.21stcenturyscience.org If you would like to participate in the project, phone project manager Jenifer Burden on 01904 432975
Course Modules for 21st Century Science
You and Your Genes
The Earth in the Universe
Radiation and Life
Life on Earth
Growth and Development
Chemicals in the Natural Environment
Synthesis and Analysis
Forces and Motion
Electricity and its Effects
The Wave Model of Radiation
Difference and Change
The Built Environment
Managing the Environment