Will courses in neuroscience and biotechnology attract students turned off by those old faithfuls chemistry and physics? Nic Barnard reports.
TEENAGERS will get a chance to study the workings of the brain with a new neuroscience AS-level designed to woo students back to science and championed by leading professor Susan Greenfield.
The qualification will be launched early in 2002 at the start of national Science Year, and could be the first of a raft of "sexy" AS-levels bringing the diversity of modern university science into schools. If successful, a course in biotechnology is likely to follow.
Professor Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution and presenter of the popular BBC2 TV series Brain Story, has agreed to be the public face of the neuroscience course. The institution will also train the first teachers.
The move comes amid alarm at the declining number of students opting for science A-levels - particularly chemistry and physics - and university degrees. The decline is steepest among female and ethnic-minority students and has contributed to the shortage of science teachers.
Professor Nigel Paine, director of Science Year, which is co-ordinating the AS-level project, said: "We have to create a climate where science is seen as cool and exciting and leading to really good jobs."
Professor Greenfield called the plan "very exciting" and said neuroscience would have a wide appeal because of its relevance to everyday life. "The average student might not be interested in black holes or whether the universe is shrinking but they might be interested in what depression is, what dreams are, or what pain is," she said. "Certainly it will help people that aren't necessarily engaged in science to see how it can help them."
Curriculum chiefs believe that the appeal of specialist subjects such as biotechnology and the popularity of "popular science" books and TV programmes such as Brain Story are not being reflected at A-level.
David Hargreaves, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is an enthusiastic supporter of a neuroscience course. He believes it would make a perfect "fourth" AS-level - students might be tempted to opt for an unusual science subject to liven up a mix of more traditional courses.
Sixth-formers are being encouraged to use their fourth choice to broaden their studies, and a subject such as neuroscience might appeal to students taking humanities.
With the Government considering letting pupils take GCSEs a year early, some may start AS courses in Year 11. The hope is that those who start a "wild-card" science AS-level early might be inspired to switch courses in Year 12 and take full A-levels in "pure" sciences such as physics and chemistry, going on to a science degree.
Professor Paine hopes to see a curriculum and timetable agreed during Science Year. The course could be piloted as early as September next year, with a full launch a year later.