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

Science Education in Europe: Plotting a course for the future?

Somewhat belatedly I have been catching up on a couple of reports about the future of Science teaching in Europe. Both were prompted by widespread concern that school science in its present form is not meeting the needs of society for the 21st Century. The decline in students’ attitudes towards science – apparently universal across Europe – is a particular worry.

Science Education Now: A renewed pedagogy for the future of Europe was published in 2007 and Science Education in Europe: Critical reflections in 2008

Published in 2007, Science Education Now: A renewed pedagogy for the future of Europe was written at the behest of the European Commission with the specific objective “to examine a cross-section of on-going initiatives and to draw from them elements of know-how and good practive that could bring about a radical change in young people’s interest in science” (p2).

The second paper, Science Education in Europe: Critical reflections follows on from two seminars held in 2006 at the Nuffield Foundation in London. The final report was published in January 2008.

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Making the best of “Bad Science” (Review)

Harper Perennial edition (2009)

Harper Perennial edition (2009)

If you have not yet read Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science, then I thoroughly recommend that you do. As readers of his regular Guardian column or his website will already know, Goldacre has embarked on a campaign to root out example of pseudoscience and shoddy science whereever they may be found.

All the usual villians are present – homeopaths, nutritionists, slack journalists, pharmaceutical companies and AIDS dissenters. Some are mentioned by name, but given their alleged predilection for litigation, and since I do not have the time, the money or the inclination to do battle with them in the courts, I shall not repeat their identities here!

It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that Goldacre is merely on a crusade against high profile exponents of “bad science”. True, the author does sometimes betray a little too much glee as he places a bomb under the throne of a media “health expert” (in a way that I found disturbingly reminiscent of the Physiology lecturer, when I was a first year undergraduate, recalling his boyhood experiments on frogs). Nevertheless, Goldacre is keen to emphasise that his purpose is to “teach good science by examining the bad” (p165 in my copy), adding that “the aim of this book is that you should be future-proofed against new variants of bullshit” (p87). Continue reading