New Science GCSEs - A catalyst for Change?

Dr Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority writes about the new UK GCSE Science specifications.

His article went out under the headline "A Catalyst for Change"

Two immediate thoughts:

1. Catalysts won't be in the new Science specification as they are considered too hard...

2. One immediate result of this "Catalyst for Change" is that many independent schools are switching out of the specification altogether and moving across to iGCSE on the grounds that it will at least contain some Science...

As an Australian, it gives me some satisfaction to know that my country has won more Nobel Prizes in science and medicine, in proportion to its population, than any other. Any successful system of science education must enable students to aspire to, and ultimately reach, this level of success as an academic scientist.

But that is not all it needs to do: science education must also meet the ever-increasing demand for trained scientists in industry, providing young people with a thorough grounding in disciplines that open the way to rewarding and challenging careers. But even this is not sufficient.

As the national curriculum rightly states, through science, students "learn to question and discuss science-based issues that may affect their own lives, the direction of society and the future of the world". In a world of rapid technological change, this is increasingly important. All this is a challenging list of qualities for any system to meet. Over recent years there has been an emerging consensus that science education in this country has not been meeting them sufficiently well.

The article goes on:

It has been said that [the new specification] amounts to offering students less "real" science or "dumbing down" the curriculum. The reality is quite different. Developing skills in applying scientific method to understand complex issues is more challenging than merely memorising facts.

For example, to develop and present the case for and against using the MMR vaccine, candidates require a real understanding of the immune system, of how the pharmaceutical industry develops, tests, and brings drugs to the market and of public health policy. They also require the ability to communicate a scientific argument.

In the new course, students considering MMR would not only be taught how vaccination confers immunity but also learn to understand the potential consequences for society of mass vaccination programmes.

Students need to have transferable skills to cope with changing demands: the ability to argue, to develop theories, to collect, evaluate, analyse and interpret data, to present information and model processes using appropriate ICT tools, to test scientific ideas and to ask the right questions.

Well, it should prove interesting to teach people "how vaccination confers immunity" (that's some fairly serious science teaching) and then offer up an understanding of "the potential consequences for society of mass vaccination programmes" whilst also covering "the ability to argue, to develop theories, to collect, evaluate, analyse and interpret data, to present information and model processes using appropriate ICT tools, to test scientific ideas and to ask the right questions."

All laudable stuff, but the reality will be a soundbite specification with little real science, and even less of these high order skills...

Oh, and largely taught by Biologists - because they can't recruit enough Physics or Chemistry graduates...

Link: Telegraph Education.

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Pi - by Kate Bush

A great observation from Simon Singh's recent article in the Telegraph.

Chris McEvoy pointed out that Aerial, the new album from Kate Bush, has the mathematically flawed song "Pi". Although Bush seems to be singing the digits of Pi, McEvoy decided to check.

All was well for the first 78 decimal places, but suddenly disaster struck: "Then it went to hell in a handbasket," said McEvoy, "when she missed out the next 22 digits completely before finishing with a precise rendition of her final 37 digits."

He was right to point out Kate Bush's error, particularly as she seems to be trying to capture the essence of being a mathematician: "Sweet and gentle and sensitive man, With an obsessive nature and deep fascination for numbers, And a complete infatuation with the calculation of Pi."

Of course, the Bible [1] reckoned that Pi was 3 - so things are improving if we've now got million selling albums offering Pi to 78 decimal places.

[1] 1 Kings 7 verse 23: "He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim [...]. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it."

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Hard Subjects for Smart Students

Students are only too willing to say that something is "boring". Particularly if they find it "hard" or demanding.

Of course, what they really mean is that they are "bored" which isn't quite the same thing...

Unfortunately they take these opinions forward into their life choices.

Now teenagers are known to be poor decision makers.

Unfortunately "hard subjects" are up against a very insidious "beauty competition" in which students are allowed/encouraged to make their own choices and, unsurprisingly, they tend to opt for subjects that are "new", "improved", "easy", "soft"...

They tend not to choose subjects that demand intellectual rigour, and study in depth.

So, what sort of subjects lose out in this particular "beauty competition"?

Well,... Maths, Sciences, Languages... in fact all the subjects that we currently see in decline.

More worryingly, these are just the subjects that are probably a core part of the UK plc machine...

I think we can put aside the Science Literacy debate since I suspect there is little to argue about there.

But we do need to address the issues at the "top" end of Science:

1. How to ensure that "smart" students actually study these "hard" subjects rather than being drawn to the dark side...

2. Finding a route through 14 -19 that best allows us to offer such students a thorough grounding in Maths and Science.

3. Identifying a consistent approach (and "sales pitch") that will graband retain these students despite the need for equations, scientificrigour, mathematical models, etc

As a starting point, perhaps I could point those interested at JFKs famous speech on Science and the push to the Moon.

"We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard"

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Science dull and hard, pupils say

Yeah, well... what would they know... see my previous posting!

Some 51% of teenagers think science lessons are boring, confusing or difficult, a survey suggests.

Figures from the OCR exam board, which interviewed 950 children aged 13 to 16 in England, showed 7% thought people working in the area were "cool".

The number of pupils choosing to study physics and chemistry at school and university level is falling.

According to the survey, some children thought singer Madonna and explorer Christopher Columbus were scientists. When asked to name a famous scientist, 39% suggested Isaac Newton and 29% Albert Einstein. Also on the list were Marie Curie, Charles Darwin and Alexander Fleming.

The survey reveals that 79% of pupils associated scientists with being clever.

The children were asked if they would study science subjects if they were not compulsory.

Some 45% said they would take biology, 32% chemistry, 29% physics and 19% combined science.

But 16% would not choose any of them.

Clara Kenyon, director of general assessment at OCR, said: "The results go to show the growing apathy in today's students about science and their ignorance of modern day achievements.

Link: BBC NEWS | Education | Science dull and hard, pupils say.

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Bad Science is a media construct

A wonderful piece from Ben Goldacre in today's Guardian.

Every week in Bad Science we either victimise some barking pseudoscientific quack, or a big science story in a national newspaper. [...] Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong? [...] It is my hypothesis that in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science, for their own means. They then attack this parody as if they were critiquing science.


Science stories usually fall into three families: wacky stories, scare stories and "breakthrough" stories.


What's wrong with the coverage itself? The problems here all stem from one central theme: there is no useful information in most science stories. A piece in the Independent on Sunday from January 11 2004 suggested that mail-order Viagra is a rip-off because it does not contain the "correct form" of the drug. I don't use the stuff, but there were 1,147 words in that piece. Just tell me: was it a different salt, a different preparation, a different isomer, a related molecule, a completely different drug? No idea. No room for that one bit of information.

Remember all those stories about the danger of mobile phones? [...] Not one told me what the experiment flagging up the danger was. What was the exposure, the measured outcome, was it human or animal data? Figures? Anything? Nothing. I've never bothered to look it up for myself, and so I'm still as much in the dark as you.

Why? Because papers think you won't understand the "science bit", all stories involving science must be dumbed down, leaving pieces without enough content to stimulate the only people who are actually going to read them - that is, the people who know a bit about science. Compare this with the book review section, in any newspaper. The more obscure references to Russian novelists and French philosophers you can bang in, the better writer everyone thinks you are. Nobody dumbs down the finance pages. Imagine the fuss if I tried to stick the word "biophoton" on a science page without explaining what it meant. I can tell you, it would never get past the subs or the section editor. But use it on a complementary medicine page, incorrectly, and it sails through.

Statistics are what causes the most fear for reporters, and so they are usually just edited out, with interesting consequences. Because science isn't about something being true or not true: that's a humanities graduate parody. It's about the error bar, statistical significance, it's about how reliable and valid the experiment was, it's about coming to a verdict, about a hypothesis, on the back of lots of bits of evidence.


So how do the media work around their inability to deliver scientific evidence? They use authority figures, the very antithesis of what science is about, as if they were priests, or politicians, or parent figures. "Scientists today said ... scientists revealed ... scientists warned." And if they want balance, you'll get two scientists disagreeing, although with no explanation of why (an approach at its most dangerous with the myth that scientists were "divided" over the safety of MMR). One scientist will "reveal" something, and then another will "challenge" it. A bit like Jedi knights.

The danger of authority figure coverage, in the absence of real evidence, is that it leaves the field wide open for questionable authority figures to waltz in. Gillian McKeith, Andrew Wakefield, Kevin Warwick and the rest can all get a whole lot further, in an environment where their authority is taken as read, because their reasoning and evidence is rarely publicly examined.

But it also reinforces the humanities graduate journalists' parody of science, for which we now have all the ingredients: science is about groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality: they do work that is either wacky, or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory and, most ridiculously, "hard to understand".

This misrepresentation of science is a direct descendant of the reaction, in the Romantic movement, against the birth of science and empiricism more than 200 years ago; it's exactly the same paranoid fantasy as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, only not as well written.

We say descendant, but of course, the humanities haven't really moved forward at all, except to invent cultural relativism, which exists largely as a pooh-pooh reaction against science.

And humanities graduates in the media, who suspect themselves to be intellectuals, desperately need to reinforce the idea that science is nonsense: because they've denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of western thought for 200 years, and secretly, deep down, they're angry with themselves over that.

Simon Parker, over at Demos points at some Demos pamphlets that are endeavouring to address this problem.

Link: Guardian Unlimited.

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Taking a chance on Physics

I missed this story when it first appeared last August.

What are the chances of physicists finding the Higgs boson at CERN or intelligent life on Titan by the end of the decade? Six-to-one for the Higgs and not very likely for life on Titan according to New Scientist magazine and bookmakers Ladbrokes, who have joined forces to offer the public the opportunity to gamble on a range of scientific projects.

"Physics bets are not just the preserve of big names like Stephen Hawking," says Valerie Jamieson of New Scientist, "now everyone can join in". Last month Hawking, who is famous for placing bets on physics with colleagues and co-workers, admitted defeat in a bet about information and black holes.

Warren Lush, who deals with special bets at Ladbrokes, says that setting the odds was difficult. "I canvassed expert opinion and then formed the odds the way a bookmaker does," he says. "This means that they are not the true odds of a breakthrough, more the odds that we are willing to lay bets on."

From tomorrow physicists and members of the public outside the US will be able to place bets of up to £25 on five physics projects at the odds shown in brackets, although these will change over time:

  • The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft finding intelligent life on Titan (Saturn's largest moon) by 2010 (10,000/1)
  • The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) detecting gravitational waves by 2010 (500/1)
  • Building a fusion power station by 2010 (100/1)
  • The ATLAS experiment at CERN finding the Higgs Boson by 2010 (6/1)
  • Understanding the origin of cosmic rays by 2010 (4/1)

Lush says that the physicists he asked about cosmic rays were very positive about the chances of a breakthrough, but opinions about finding the Higgs swayed dramatically.

However, at 100/1 the odds of building a fusion power station are the same as those offered for finding Elvis alive, which is deemed five times more likely that detecting a gravitational wave by 2010.

Meanwhile, the discovery of life on Titan could cost Ladbrokes thousands, but Lush says that he is not losing any sleep.

Link: PhysicsWeb - News - Taking a chance on Physics (August 2004).

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Turning Search Into a Science

When genetic researchers do a Web search for Dolly, the subject of their query probably doesn't have the last name Parton, ...

But a Google search will turn up these results and lots of other noise, unless the researcher specifies that results should not include Parton but must include cloning. Instead, a scientist could use a search engine like Scirus, which specifically taps science resources and publications.

Link: Wired News.

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Oh help... what are we doing (2)

Comedian Griff Rhys Jones joined 1,000 students trying to stop the closure of Cambridge University's 100-year-old architecture department. University authorities say the quality of the department's research falls below the standards expected of one of the country's top universities.

Mr Rhys Jones said since the targets were "arbitrary" and under review, the school should not be closed. A decision on the department's future is due to be taken [in early December 2004]

Link: BBC Education

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Oh help... what are we doing (1)

A Nobel Prize-winning scientist is to return his honorary degree to Exeter University in protest at plans to close its chemistry department. Professor Sir Harry Kroto's decision comes after Exeter said it wanted to cut a predicted deficit of £4.5m.

Sir Harry, who co-discovered the C60 carbon atoms used in nanotechnology, called the plans "slash and burn". But the university said chemistry was costing it money and other departments would suffer if it remained.

Link: BBC Education.

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Maths holy grail could bring disaster for internet

Guardian Unlimited; Tim Radford

Mathematicians could be on the verge of solving two separate million dollar problems. If they are right - still a big if - and somebody really has cracked the so-called Riemann hypothesis, financial disaster might follow. Suddenly all cryptic codes could be breakable. No internet transaction would be safe.

On the other hand, if somebody has already sorted out the so-called Poincaré conjecture, then scientists will understand something profound about the nature of spacetime, experts told the British Association science festival in Exeter yesterday.

Both problems have stood for a century or more. Each is almost dizzyingly arcane: the problems themselves are beyond simple explanation, and the candidate answers published on the internet are so intractable that they could baffle the biggest brains in the business for many months.

They are two of the seven "millennium problems" and four years ago the Clay Mathematics Institute in the US offered $1m (£563,000) to anyone who could solve even one of these seven.

Read on at Guardian Unlimited or ...

Continue reading "Maths holy grail could bring disaster for internet" »

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