Science lessons will fuel all our futures

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Pupils need to be inspired by the idea of scientific endeavour if we are to save the planet, says Ewan Aitken.

I was fortunate enough to spend part of the summer in Orkney with my family.

This is a wonderfully understated part of the world, stark in its beauty and cradling some glimpses of civilisation from times before the Pyramids were even at the blueprint stage.

The light in Orkney is extraordinary. The evenings in particular crack open the rainbow with a myriad of shades and hues that seem to change before your eyes. And it is a place where silence is something you hear, not a description of what you cannot hear.

We spent a couple of days in Westray, where I had spent a summer of student placement more than 15 years ago. There I saw another sight I hadn't seen elsewhere - petrol at 106p a litre. It's much more commonplace these days and so many more are yelping at the thought, but Westray and places like it have suffered higher prices for fuel and all other necessities for many years. Island life may seem idyllic but it comes at a price, and not just a financial one.

Westray is a very creative community, however, and looks to other ways to meet its fuel needs. The one that caught my attention was the community electric car. This is a battery-powered vehicle owned by the community for use by anyone on the island. There are three charging-points on the island, all powered by wind turbines. It's a car that runs for free, at least in fuel terms, courtesy of the power of nature.

Further north in Unst, the Shetlands' most northerly outpost, the news this summer was grim for other reasons. The RAF station, the islands' largest employer, is moving out. This is part of what's called the peace dividend: for Unst, that means unemployment for around 40 families.

This community, too, has a creative plan. It is planning to harness wind power to separate hydrogen from water and use the gas not only to drive electricity generators but also to provide fuel for around 15p a gallon for island vehicles.

More importantly, it could be liquified and exported. This fuel is not only cheap, it also provides energy without pollution. If this succeeds, the peace dividend will have provided an opportunity to create an alternative to the cause of many wars, including the one in which we are entangled at present. That really would be a peace dividend.

If this ingenious plan works, it would also be good news for another isolated community in the news this summer, Western Siberia.

Scientists there have discovered that a vast expanse of permafrost the size of France and Germany is thawing for the first time since it formed 11,000 years ago. Some predict that, if it continues, it could be a "tipping point" in the global warming process, the beginning of changes from which we could not escape, described as an "ecological landslide that is probably irreversible".

Each of these communities' fragile futures lies with those blessed with scientific minds that are allowed to be creative. They are not alone in needing to grab a new, radical approach to their future way of living.

The Executive's Ambitious, Excellent Schools document commits it to a full review of the science curriculum. My own memories of science were cutting up rats in biology, ticker tape by the metre in physics and exploding magnesium in chemistry, none of which related to my experience of the world beyond the laboratory. I have no doubt that science in schools has moved on in leaps and bounds since those dark days, but there is still much work to be done.

The review needs to be not just about science in isolation but rooted in the ecological, economic and political challenges that face us in the early 21st century.

How, for example, do we deal with the potential of nuclear power and the ethical issues that raises? Many years ago, I protested outside the building of Torness nuclear power station and would probably do so again.

Yet, if safe solutions could be found to the dangers of radiation, some would argue that, compared to the ecological damage other fuel sources create, it is worth looking at again.

I don't know the answer to that conundrum, but there needs to be one and its genesis begins in fired-up young minds stretched and inspired by the idea of scientific endeavour.

There could not be a more important time for science to work its way into the heart of the education agenda again, inspiring young minds to think creatively to find solutions to the things that threaten whole communities and ultimately Earth itself.

It is a review that will not just influence what happens in classrooms and the curriculum: it could literally be the saving of our planet. No pressure, then.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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