Science must be real

27th March 2009 at 00:00

The threat of global warming should be used as the catalyst to boost young people's uptake of science in school, according to one of Scotland's leading educational researchers.

"Time is short," warned Strathclyde University professor Tom Bryce, who trained and worked as a physics teacher before entering academia. If schools were to teach young people anything useful in science, lessons about the environment needed to be more "potent", he said at a public lecture at the university's Jordanhill campus.

His lecture, "The State of Science Education", was set against the background of Scotland's falling performance internationally in maths and science in the most recent Pisa and Timss surveys, and amid concerns about uptake of science subjects in the senior years of secondary.

Around 9,000 pupils had sat a Higher exam in either biology, chemistry or physics last year. While science entry numbers remained steady, the number of Higher psychology candidates already reached a quarter of that figure. The draft guidance on science for A Curriculum for Excellence had reopened various debates about its teaching in schools:

- should science be an integrated subject or taught as the discrete subjects of chemistry, physics and maths?

- how much emphasis should be placed on teaching basic concepts?

Should science education be designed for the sake of the country's future scientists - or "pipeline" scientists, as he described them - or should it be focused on science literacy, humanistic science for citizenship and everyday life?

Timss (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) had shown that the greater contact young people had with science, the more they were turned off it. Meanwhile, the Rose study (Relevance of Science Education) showed the more advanced a country was, the greater the lack of interest in science among students who chose it. This led him to the conclusion that there was an exaggerated faith in the importance of "learning science".

"Our concerns for good content coverage, completeness of conceptual progression and the grasp of particulars of knowledge are lost on so many young people. These don't or wouldn't matter that much at university if 'learning to do science' and 'learning about science' gained greater focus at school," said Professor Bryce.

If school science was made real, investigative science for the majority, there would be "greater pay-offs than content-cramming currently achieves", he said. "We need to care more seriously about the majority rather than dwelling excessively on the few who emerge from the (somewhat inefficient) pipeline."

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