Government "to bust myth of 'elitist' science"

Government to  bust myth of 'elitist' science
The Government's science awareness campaign is a pointless waste of money for everyone, except for the government itself, which will claim it is doing something to secure our technological future. The UK's Science Minister, Lord Drayson, has decided that too few students are taking up science or engineering careers because they think that science is too hard and elitist:
"Continued success in science is vital to our future - and yet there is still the perception among many of our people that science is too clever for them or elitist in some way.

"We must challenge myths like these if we are to build a prosperous, science-literate society, able to tackle the difficult issues that modern science presents and work them through to create the jobs and growth of the future.
So, his solution is to tell young people that science isn't hard or elitist! So there, job done.

Strangely, the press release announcing the Science [So What? So Everything] campaign links to the 2008 Public Attitudes to Science survey, which showed that awareness of, and attitudes, to science was high and increasing. So why the expensive awareness campaign?

The real issue of course, is that, in spite of the fact that young people are aware of the importance of science in their lives, fewer are choosing is as a career.

Let me suggest what the government ought to be doing to encourage the uptake of science careers:
  • Keep science lessons difficult (for politicians, read 'challenging'.) Talented students are attracted by elite, high status careers, such as medicine. They will not be tempted by science if it is made too accessible. I want scientists and engineers to be clever — they should be seen as an elite.

  • The government should properly fund blue sky science, rather than focus on research with short term medical or environmental benefits. The stingy approach to astronomy and particle physics funding over recent months was very off-putting.

  • OFSTED should be reigned in and retrained: the education watchdog's penchant for fashionable trends, such as interactive whiteboards, computers and 'learning styles' has diverted attention from the skills teacher should be developing, i.e the one research has shown to work.

  • Encourage talented, able scientists to become teachers by making teaching high status (and, yes, elitist). The UK's science education is already one of the best in the world, as I posted on before, but most Physics teachers will retire in the next decade.

An awareness campaign just allows the government to claim it is doing something, without having to actually tackle the serious problems that are stopping the country from attracting the best student into science and engineering careers.

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Chief Scientific Officer Criticised by Committee

UK government's Chief Scientific Officer, John Beddington, questioned by the DIUS committee about evidence and science in decision makingWith Barak Obama championing the role of science in government in his inaugural speech, it is disappointing to see our very own Chief Scientific Advisor falling short of expectations.

Prof. John Beddington, has been criticised by the House of Commons Committee responsible for Science, the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee. As the government's most visible scientific expert, Beddington has a responsibility to champion science- and evidence-based decision making.

The committee, which oversees DIUS, found Beddington to be more equivocal than his predecessor, Prof. David King regarding the public funding of homeopathy, the reclassification of cannabis, and the role of evidence in government:
We are concerned that on homeopathy Professor Beddington did not take the opportunity to restate the importance of the scientific process and to state that what was important was the balance of scientific evidence, [and that he] has not chosen to challenge departments where no evidence was produced.

[he] is the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and we are surprised that rather than champion evidence-based science within government he appears to see his role as defending government policy or, in the case of homeopathy, explaining why there is no clear government policy.
King was known for dismissing silly ideas, so it is worrying that Beddington does not feel the need to put scientific truths ahead of political ones.

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Modular Physics Courses Harm Deep Learning

The change of A Level assessment from terminal exams to modules, examined every term or so, has increased exam success for students, but at the expense of a deep understanding of Physics.

The Curriculum 2000 program introduced Advanced Supplementary (AS) courses in the UK at teh beginning of the decade, to help give breadth to the A Level choices that students made at the end of compulsory schooling. Since they were only committing themselves to nine months, many people who had an interest in Physics, but were uncertain about its reputation for difficulty, felt they could take a chance. The effect on enrollment on to college Physics courses was immediate, with class sizes swelling considerably.

So why is it that Physics and Engineering degree courses have continued their decline in popularity?

Unintended Consequences

Class Size

Larger class sizes affect the time teachers can spend supporting individual students in the first year of the course, and the amount of preparation they can do, due to the increased quantity marking and reporting needed. Many students drop out after one year, but since large class sizes have become the norm, classes are cut to keep the student-staff ratio up. With the old two year courses, the classes shrank for the more challenging second year, allowing students to get one-to-one support more often and teachers to get a better understanding of each student's learning.

Dropping Courses

Weaker students, facing the prospect of failure after two years on a course, could find the motivation within themselves to work harder as the final exams drew nearer.

Being able to drop one of their three AS courses at the end of the first year encourages students to stick with the easiest courses in the attempt to maximise their haul of grades. This is no bad thing, and has contributed to the higher grades awarded in recent years, but there are serious side-effects.
For example, soon after their introduction I had a potential Oxbridge student, close to the end of the first year, excuse his recent lack of completed homework by saying he was thinking of dropping Physics (expecting grade A or B). Instead, he was considering continuing with Religious Studies (guaranteed, apparently, a grade A) as he wanted the status of a complete sweep of grade As, awarded to 26,000 students in 2008.

Schools are also tempted to encourage students to enroll onto easier subject, limiting science course uptake, but maximising the school's league table position.


The modular structure itself, though, is the biggest problem. Instead of a two year coherent course, designed to build concepts and skills progressively, students work towards six, largely independent, work units, called modules. Although the change was supposed to motivate students by keeping up the flow of high stakes examination, most of the effects have been negative and dangerous:
  • Most importantly, modules, with their regular schedule of bite-sized exams, encourage cramming and surface learning from the students and teaching to the test by teachers.
  • Mock exams, as a safe opportunity to test your progress, have lost their power to motivate.
  • The module structure of the exams discourages exam boards from using broad synoptic style questions in the module exams, with deep questioning left until the last summer paper. But of course, the patterns of thought have been set by then, and students often fail to grasp the interconnectedness of the subject.

Drop the Modules

Modular courses act as a disincentive for students to thoroughly learn and understand their chosen subjects. The January exams, at least, should be abandoned by colleges, and the time gained put to goo use teaching the students to understand and love their subjects.

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