Where are the students to save our planet?

28th July 2006 at 01:00
Climate change could mean the end of the planet as we know it. Nuclear power is being touted as the answer to the energy crisis and greed for oil is being blamed for wars around the world. But in schools, no one is interested.

The Geophysical Association has highlighted the declining interest in geophysics in a report published this week, despite the subject's headline-making potential.

It criticised the subject's poor profile in schools and said the number of geophysics undergraduates has halved in the past 20 years. "Lack of exposure to geophysics in schools is the major contributing factor to poor recruitment to university degree programmes," the report said.

Geophysics is defined as the application of physics to the study of the earth. It includes the study of climate change, nuclear testing, volcanoes and earthquakes. Relevant topics are included in GCSE science and physics syllabuses. But at A-level, it is covered in the geography, rather than physics, curriculum.

A-level entries for physics have halved since the early 1990s and geography entries have dropped by around 40 per cent.

By contrast, geology entries have remained consistent since the subject was introduced in 2001, but remain well below 3,000.

The report, which has been endorsed by the chief executive of BP, said:

"Our strongest recommendation is that geophysics must be included into the physics A-level syllabus to encourage more students to read physics as well as to increase awareness of geophysics as a career."

Derek Bell, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, said:

"It's easy to say, 'Stick it in the A-level' but there's so much already there. There's a danger you end up overloading the curriculum. Also, you've got to have people trained to teach geophysics. If you haven't got the teachers, there's no point forcing it."

The report also calls for physics and geography teachers to be trained in geophysics. And it suggests that pupils are made aware of potential careers in the subject. For example, the installation of seismographs in some British schools enabled them to record data and publish it online, for other schools to share.

But David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association, disputes the report's conclusions. He said: "Geophysics has steadily been moved away from mainstream geography to try to enliven the science curriculum.

"Geographers have an abiding interest in the distribution and shape of the world. But geography teachers think science teachers are notoriously poor at teaching these things."

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