Science is magic

4th April 1997 at 01:00
Scientists say school children must be given a sense of excitement in the subject.

Schools have artists in residence, so why not scientists in residence? This was one of the ideas proposed at the annual conference of the Standing Conference on Schools' Science and Technology (SCSST) in London.

The subject certainly seems to need some sort of boost at sixth-form level. There is little interest in A-level physics or chemistry, and university engineering courses have grown disturbingly empty. With boys four times more likely than girls to take A-level physics, the reluctance of girls to take the subject is another cause for concern, as the Institute of Physics warned last month.

The SCSST was established in 1971 on the initiative of the Duke of Edinburgh and several leading industrialists. It is partly funded by the Department of Trade and Industry with support from various companies, including the British Airports Authority, BT, Ford and Unilever. It is probably less well known than the national initiatives it runs, including the CREST awards, the Young Engineers clubs and the Professional Development Unit for Teachers. One of the organisation's main tasks is to interest and enthuse young people about the challenge of science and technology through active learning.

If the key speakers at this conference were anything to go by, science is a fascinating subject in which an exciting and rewarding career can be made. The SCSST could do no better than sending these speakers - Professor Susan Greenfield, Dr John Dunford, Nick Butler and Professor Mark Ferguson - to talk to every secondary school pupil in the UK. Their enthusiasm and eloquence on their individual subjects would almost certainly guarantee an overnight quadrupling of the numbers applying for university science courses.

Professor Susan Greenfield of Lincoln College, Oxford, one of the UK's leading specialists on the workings of the brain and their implications for learning, said we must reawaken a sense of awe and excitement in science. Professor Greenfield, who has no O or A-levels in the subject but a doctorate in pharmacology, claimed forging links with industry would increase the subject's relevance to pupils.

Dr John Dunford, head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, Durham, proposed a unified system of academic and vocational qualifications with elements of choice to suit individual need. The main problem, he said, was cultural - hence his suggestion that schools adopt "scientists in residence".

He said pupils' perception of careers in science and technology must be changed by a variety of means. Using such methods as the CREST awards - a national accreditation scheme encouraging a practical, problem-solving approach to science - is a positive way of carrying out this aim, as is the work of the Engineering Council.

One solution, he suggested, would be to increase the number of GNVQ courses on offer, although this would demand huge investment.

Sir Robert May, the Government's chief scientific adviser, attempted to add a note of optimism, pointing out that Britain compares favourably with the other G5 countries when it come to funding scientific research.

Nick Butler, Master of the Faculty of the Royal Designers for Industry, had more good news. There was no reason, he said, why British manufacturing, which supports science and design, should not match the sophistication of Germany and Japan.

At the moment it does not, a fact many, including the save Brititsh Science Campaign, attribute to low levels of commercial research and development. The lack of technological jobs, runs the argument, deters potential scientists. This issue, sadly, made little headway amid the enthusiasm.

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