Time to experiment

What would make more young people want to learn science? Jonathan Osborne looks at why the subject needs to recreate its appeal

A House of Commons committee on science education produced a report this summer which came to the damning conclusion that "students study science post-16 not because of science at GCSE but despite it" .

Where does the blame for this lie? To find the answer, the committee took evidence from students, employers, examination boards, the Association for Science Education, technicians, the scientific societies, and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. There were more than 100 written submissions.

MPs visited schools in their constituencies, together with others in London. The focus of their enquiry was the curriculum and its assessment, not teacher supply, which was specifically excluded.

The problems lie in key stage 4, although their roots may well be in key stage 3. Basically, an increasing body of research shows that science for this age group is singularly unappealing. Pupils complain that the subject is too repetitive, is dominated by facts, involves too much copying, and is intellectually unstimulating.

Those components that they do like, such as practical work and discussing contemporary aspects of science, are minimised. Why? The answer, it seems, lies in the combination of an over-crowded curriculum, poor laboratory facilities, over-zealous interpretation of safety risks, and investigations that are too often mind-numbing, ritualistic exercises whose primary purpose is to achieve the best mark rather than attempting to demonstrate the creative and challenging nature of scientific work.

The result is that teachers are forced to frogmarch their students across the scientific landscape allowing them no time to stand and stare and, in particular, no time to discuss the scientific issues which grab newspaper headlines, such as cloning, the single mumps, measles and rubella injection, supersonic travel (see story, right) and more.

Nobody is going to deny that learning science is difficult, but does it have to be so indigestible? Add to this the fact that science sells itself short, emphasising only its value for future careers rather than its intrinsic interest, and you can see why enrolments for A-level are in trouble.

This is what worried the MPs on this select committee and Sir Gareth Roberts, who recently reported on the supply of scientists and technologists for the Treasury.

His point was that a technological society depends on scientifically trained people. How can we provide them when so many of our young people seem to be turning away from science? It was such concerns that led MPs to undertake this enquiry.

There were 67 recommendations in their final report. The highlights? First, that the current assessment arrangements are "stultifying", forcing teachers to make students recall a litany of facts rather than develop their ability to reason scientifically. The QCA and the exam boards must accept responsibility for this. Second, the one-size-fits-all curriculum is inappropriate and more flexibility is needed. Some students need courses that prepare them for A-level and others don't. No one course can do both.

The other big message was that something had to be done about improving facilities for practical work. Ofsted considered that 26 per cent of laboratories were handicapped by poor facilities and their technicians were badly paid and had no career structure.

The MPs stopped short of saying that science should be compulsory for only 10 per cent of curriculum time, but there was a vigorous debate on this.

Rather than asking what students should learn about science, the question should be "what would make young people want to learn science?".

Part of that answer comes from the new AS-level, science for public understanding. This has been taken by more girls than boys - a minor miracle in the history of science education for a course that includes elements of physics.

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of students say the course is both "interesting and enjoyable". Clearly this is one course that offers some light at the end of a long tunnel and an answer to some of the nation's concerns.

The full report is available at www.parliament.ukcommonsselcomsamp;thome.htm

Jonathan Osborne is a professor of science education at King's College London and acted as a specialist adviser to the House of Commons Science and Technology committee for its enquiry

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