Science must tackle hefty issues

28th August 2009 at 01:00
From stem cell research to obesity, the new curriculum sees science labs as the place for topical discussion

The new curriculum guidelines for science - the so-called experiences and outcomes - contain a section dedicated to "topical science". A scientifically literate population, able to form educated opinions and "reflect upon and critically evaluate media portrayal of scientific findings", is the aim.

Marjorie Smith, a biology teacher at Dollar Academy and development officer with the Scottish Schools Equipment and Research Centre, welcomes the move towards discussion of topical issues in science, which she hopes will lead to a better-informed public. Her pet hate, she confides, is people who have opinions built on shaky foundations or, worse still, no foundations at all.

"I am always saying: `I don't know about that,' but other people seem to be happy to express an opinion based on no knowledge," she says. "Children are ready and open to discussion if given the opportunity. How are they supposed to understand why someone thinks stem cells are a controversial issue if they have not been exposed to that person's opinion?"

With tough social, moral and ethical issues now on the agenda, science teachers have their work cut out for them, especially as guiding whole- class discussions is uncharted territory for some.

"These topics are difficult," she continues. "It's easy to talk about global warming, for instance, because it does not affect people in a personal way, but looking at diet and diabetes, you may have overweight children in the class or parents who may be diabetic."

Ms Smith has created a series of Let's Talk science resources, funded by AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust, aimed at upper primary and early secondary pupils. The materials cover three topics: the liver and alcohol; diet, diabetes and obesity; and vaccines and immunity.

So far, the packs have been trialled in more than 20 Fife primaries and secondaries. The next phase of the project, which is in its second year, will be to extend the materials to schools in Midlothian, East Lothian and Edinburgh.

Each pack contains relevant facts and figures and explains the science behind the issues. Far from tip-toeing round the controversial aspects, they aim to spark discussion, asking pupils to consider, among other things, whether overweight children should be banned from school trips for safety reasons; if baby milk should have Leptin (an appetite suppressant) added to it, so children grow up with smaller appetites; and whether 12 (the age girls receive the vaccine for human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer) is too young to be vaccinated.

Michelle Russell, a biology and guidance teacher in West Lothian, agrees with Ms Smith that ACfE is looking for science teachers to do things differently. "A Curriculum for Excellence is all about opinions, discussion, being part of society and knowing what everybody is talking about," says Ms Russell, who began using the materials while teaching at Madras College.

She suspects, however, that some science teachers might not be ready for the change in methodology. "Science teachers like to tell pupils the facts, but are less comfortable with the kids forming their own opinions." Her problem was not so much about knowing where to start, as where to stop. The resources have helped: "These issues involve complex biology and it can be difficult to know where to stop, what level of detail to give."

Teachers from Balcurvie Primary, which has been part of the pilot, admit some schools would shy away from tackling such controversial topics - one primary dropped out of the trial for that reason. But Balcurvie has found the packs to be flexible and a good way of sparking discussion, says headteacher Lynn Wilson.

When it came to using the vaccination materials, a workshop was held for parents to ensure they were comfortable with the content. "These were issues we were dealing with in school but, before, we didn't have the resources," she says.

Paul Denley, a lecturer in education at the University of Bath, and external evaluator for the trust, says: "This project has been particularly successful at generating high-quality material and involving teachers in the development, so they are powerful advocates. The trust recognises primary teachers are not always confident about teaching science; Let's Talk provides a good support."

One teacher, however, found the S2 class with which she trialled the topic on diet, diabetes and obesity almost came to blows, with thin pupils in one camp and overweight pupils in the other. "They were ready to punch each other," she says.

Ms Smith's research, however, shows most teachers (over 70 per cent) found the materials useful.

Now the question on everyone's lips is: when will the swine flu pack be published?

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