Secondary School Science: Fit for purpose?

Autumn 2010 promises to be an interesting time for University-level science courses in the UK. Although many colleagues around the country are presently unaware of the fact, students joining their degree programmes in October may arrive with very different background training in science compared with previous generations.

In 2006, major reforms of GCSE Science courses were introduced in England and Wales. The motivation for the changes stemmed from a fundamental question about the purpose of school science. At risk of gross oversimplification, the history of these developments goes something like this.

When I were a lad
Back in the old days (add “good” only if you feel this is appropriate) pupils were offered a range of O Level choices and they could elect to pick three, two, one or even no science courses depending on what they wanted. Science was not therefore a ‘core’ part of everyone’s post-14 education – it was taken by those who had an interest in the topic, a substantial portion of whom might well go on to study science at a higher level too. The curriculum reflected this and might be considered as the first rung leading towards a science career, it was “science education for the proto-scientist”. Continue reading

A new model for interaction between science research and TV?

A fascinating thing occurred this week. The website of top-notch scientific journal Nature uploaded the preprint of a paper on research looking into the alleged benefits of brain training games.

In and of itself this news may not sound revolutionary; Nature frequently publishes articles on neuroscience (and, I suspect, will be doing so more and more in coming years).   The thing I find interesting about this particular example is the fact that the research was initiated by the BBC’s peak-time science programme Bang Goes The Theory (awarded an honourable mention in last year’s round-up of Science TV). So what we have is television investing in science conducted by a recognised leader in the field of brain research (Adrian Owen, as also seen here) with the net result being a paper in a leading journal as well as an interesting programme.

Now clearly there is a lot of fundamental and important science that needs doing but will never attract the gaze or the funding of the BBC, Discovery Channel or so on. Nevertheless is this serves as a paradigm for a relationship that generates cash for research and at the same time enhances the quality and integrity of the science being discussed on the TV, that’s got to be a good thing. Right?

Research transparency and the Emperor’s new clothes

I’m currently reading Neil Manson and Onora O’Neill’s excellent Rethinking Informed Consent in Bioethics (about which there will be much more on this site when I’ve finished it). One of the issues that arises is not only that you have obtained consent in an appropriate way (a first-order informational obligation) but also that you have collected evidence to show that you have done so (which is a second-order informational obligation).

This set me ruminating about the modern obsession with generating paperwork to ‘prove’ something. This is probably most acute in my thinking because I am also monitoring my hours this week for the “Research Transparency Exercise”. The process has different names in different institutions but, as I understand it, the idea is that all academics in all UK HE institutions record their exact use of time for one week during each calendar year.

My question is – what’s the point? I know it’s a cliche, but the nature and duration of my commitments in any two weeks can differ wildly, so what meaningful data is going to arise from extracting information from any one of those and pretending it is typical? For staff with a heavy teaching commitment the difference between term-time and vacation-time monitoring is going to be particularly stark. Continue reading