A Science Generation

I’ve dug out some old markbooks – electronic and paper – because I wanted to think about who it is that we’re teaching, and why. It occurred to me that having universities contributing to A-level specification discussions assumed that the courses were for their benefit. In the classroom, we as teachers adapt our examples and contexts to suit our students. We can’t adjust the syllabus itself, even if we know that the majority of our students will be progressing to a route very different to an undergraduate physics course.
I’m relying on slightly incomplete data and scribbled marginalia, plus my own memory. It’s for one ‘generation’, from year 7 to year 13, at a previous workplace (specialist science, outstanding according to Ofsted, included sixth form etc). I’d be really interested in contrasting data, if anyone has it to share – I have no idea how representative it is generally.
September 2005 – July 2012
2005 (Year 7): 240 students starting our in-house course based on the QCA topics – remember them? The students were externally assessed (following an internal annual exam) by SATs. Remember those? After they were phased out we continued with our own internally marked version. The score was used to separate students into double and triple classes for GCSE.
2008 (Year 10): 64 students started the triple course (AQA Biology, Chemistry and Physics). They were selected on the basis of good scores in their KS3 SATs for both Science and Maths, as we ‘borrowed’ some maths time for the extra science. The remaining 176 did ‘double’ (Core and Additional AQA). None could swap during the course.
At end of yr11, a large majority of those who continued to AS science courses came to our linked sixth form. A few extra students applied from other schools locally. The majority of those doing Physics had followed the triple route. (This was similar for the other sciences but not as clear.) Maths was recommended but not required,  and the entry requirement was a B no matter what GCSE route.
2010 (Year 12): 40 students started AS Physics (AQA), of which 33 were our students previously. By the end of the year, 11 had dropped the course for various reasons. Those who had studied Double science were not disproportionately represented in those failing or dropping, but those who had gained a B at GCSE were.
2011 (Year 13): Of the 29 students starting, 24 had been our students at GCSE. The cohort achieved grades from A-E, only five below C. Of these students, 14 went on to scientific degrees. Of these 14, 8 went to do physics or engineering. (6 of these had been our students from Year 7.)
science generation
Ignoring later entrants, this means of the 240 we started teaching in yr7, only six went on to physics and engineering courses: less than 3%. Even just looking at those entering sixth form as our starting point, only 20% went on to directly relevant courses.

For many students, this was exactly as planned. Some of the courses – chemistry, medicine, maths – would no doubt use the skills and knowledge gained. For other students, the more nebulous skills such as logical reasoning would be valuable in their future courses. And it’s much harder to track those who may not return to the academic content until after an apprenticeship or similar.

But as far as university physics admission tutors are concerned, those students are pretty much invisible. They’re irrelevant. What they know, or don’t know, never affects first year courses or the tutors who complain about this or that gap in their undergraduates’ knowledge.

The competing needs of ‘Science for Future Scientists’ and ‘Science for Citizens’ have long been identified, but not resolved. I’d argue that in many ways it is a situation which cannot be resolved. A few factors which we’d easily identified in our prep room cause clear difficulties:
  1. We ask our students to choose (or often, we choose for them) in year 9 or even earlier. At this point some are yet to gain confidence, while others will have already peaked, in ability or attitude. There will be a proportion of students who could go either way, but can’t be identified yet. As science teachers, we’d see this as uncertainty, not error. (Insert Schrodinger’s Cat joke here)
  2. The courses are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having different values. I’ve always said that I’d have a lot more confidence in the equal value of BTecs and similar if the same proportion of students in private and state schools did them. When an MP’s child, Tarquin or Poppy, do a college course in Leisure and Tourism instead of A-levels then maybe parity will have been achieved.
  3. Currently 16-18 courses feel very specialized. I would have loved to do more than four subjects, and it was seen back then that a broader curriculum was coming. And that, as my wife frequently reminds me, was years ago. Students feel they must identify as a scientist – or not – very young. I suspect for many it feels like a big commitment. (We looked at doing science vs identifying as a scientist in an early SciTeachJC).
  4. The very topics which might motivate students to carry on to further study are those which are less relevant for daily life. This means that it is easy for the open-ended, challenging ideas – the inspiring ones – to be saved for those students who will come to them again anyway. Those achieving at a lower level are taught topics which are less exciting – reinforcing their belief that physics is boring. A self-fulfilling prophecy!
I’m not expecting to solve anything. I don’t think I’ve even identified anything new. But when I went through the numbers, despite having taught over those years, I was surprised by just how small a proportion of our students are ‘pre-physicists’. Perhaps it would be interesting to think about the equivalent numbers at your institution?

4 thoughts on “A Science Generation”

  1. This is a really important discussion about the purposes of science curricula (not just the UK; Australia’s too) and who they serve. I agree that we need to find a way of teaching science for all, not just science for future scientists. This might mean going beyond, or even ignoring, what UG program directors want from their science students. I don’t know how to solve this but I do think he discussion is important. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for commenting. It’s hardly a new recognition, but it happened that I was discussing with a colleague about personal numbers making situation more relevant for students, on the same day as I read about new specifications for 16-18 courses and who had a say. Typically, I taught one or two classes in each year group – standard for a science teacher in a UK secondary school, I think – which meant it was easy to miss the scale of diminishing numbers.

      The real problem is when we find out that the very things likely to inspire students to carry on the subject – maybe boost the throughput from 2 to 10% – put off other kids. If the same factor is a positive for some and a negative for others, what do we do?

  2. I think you are right that the “Science for Citizens” v “Science for Future Scientists” is a terribly difficult problem. The Beyond 2000 discussion tackled this but I don’t think the outcome (Double + Triple) was successful. I jotted down my thoughts a while back following another similar discussion http://wp.me/p44DHA-8 but more recently I have come to the view that the best solution is to reduce the breadth and increase the depth of KS3/4. At the moment it’s a right old gallop to get through the curriculum, and shallow and shaky knowledge of a broad range of minor topics doesn’t help with either preparation or enthusiaism for post-16 science. I’d like to see KS3/4 aiming for excellent investigative skills, good basic scientific numeracy, mastery of a manageable range of topics, and well-developed scientific literacy for the science citizens. I think factual knowledge is fundamental to understanding so I would want there to be a good match between the range of topics and the major socio-scientific issues. If that means leaving potential dividers and the resistance characteristics of filament lamps to KS5 then I don’t think anyone will lose out. Best wishes.

  3. I find the double for most, triple for some problematic… I (a long time ago) did physics and chemistry. Loved them. Went on to do further maths and physics A levels, and an engineering degree at a top university. I had (have?) no interest in biology at all. I would have failed double science and been kicked out of 1/3 of triple science, probably putting an early end to my science career.

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