Arrgghh! Monday and it's double science!

Monday morning, 8.45am! A 100-minute science lesson! Arrgghh! Steven Russell goes back to school . . . and discovers he's still bottom of the class.

Steven Russell

Monday morning, 8.45am! A 100-minute science lesson! Arrgghh! Steven Russell goes back to school . . . and discovers he's still bottom of the class

NO, I have no firm idea what an isotope is, I'd struggle to make a model of lithium-8 with Smarties, and talk about carbon-14 decaying to nitrogen with a half-life of 5,730 is, well, double-dutch to my unscientific ear. The worst of it is, the class - pupils a third of my age - are much more clued-up. Ooh, and here's a flashback memory from the 1970s: fear and panic. I feel the tears welling . . . Going back to school had all seemed such a good idea last week . . .

Experts and politicians have been twittering on for yonks about science and education. In the autumn of 2006, for instance, the new GCSE syllabus was branded “soundbite science” by one of the top men at Imperial College London.

Last summer, Ofsted claimed lessons in both primary and secondary schools were often uninspiring and didn't have enough practical experiments. “Science is a fascinating and exciting subject,” said chief inspector Christine Gilbert. “Yet for many pupils it lacks appeal because of the way that it is taught.”

And, just last week, regulator Ofqual (horrible name) weighed in. It claimed science GCSE standards had fallen and reckoned exam boards' syllabuses were “over complicated”. There was also too much emphasis on multiple choice questions.

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Meanwhile, and on the plus side, TV shows such as Brainiac and Richard Hammond's Blast Lab are popular. Then there's the recent BBC series Rocket Science, in which Wirral teacher Andy Smith tried to “hook” his science-resistant pupils with flashes and bangs before explaining the principles underpinning the physics and chemistry.

So, what's going on?

Three decades after scraping my biology and chemistry O-levels - physics having long been jettisoned as a lost cause - I asked to go back to school. Chantry High in Ipswich, and particularly teacher Jane Reason, kindly allowed us to sit in on a Year 11 class. (That's the fifth year of secondary school in old money.)

Teachers obviously don't have the resources to stage Rocket Science-style spectaculars like firework displays, so you might imagine they might be miffed by TV shows that raise expectations. Mrs Reason isn't.

“I like them!” she insists. “What they do is show children that science is fun, relevant and interesting, and it gives them another way in. Also, I get ideas from some of them - different things we can try - or you can video them and show clips of experiments you can't do.

“Brainiac once put magnesium, I think it was, in a microwave oven, and it blew the oven up. Can't actually do that in our school, but it's great fun to watch! You can draw on that.

“The fact they see people going to the Nevada copper mines is actually incredibly relevant to pupils studying the impact on the environment of us mining all these things, because they can see the huge great hole in the ground. It's better than a photograph in a book.

“We shouldn't be precious about things. We should think 'All these different mediums are really useful.' If they [the shows] imply 'We're doing this because science teaching is really boring,' I think that's when it gets a bit unnecessary.”

Today's lesson is about radioactive decay. To demonstrate that the rate of decay is random, we all toss coins and on each turn count the number of people getting tails. There's no pattern to the results - nor is there when we keep throwing dice until we score a “four”.

Then it's some group work - and here's a surprise for dinosaurs like me: the use of laptops as research tools. In my day, a computer virtually filled a room on its own.

One group investigates half-lives, including modelling the process by folding and cutting paper. Another looks at detecting, measuring and comparing nuclear radiations, including using cloud chambers with visible trails. A third grouping investigates background radiation, takes readings inside and outside the classroom with a Geiger-M�ller counter, and thinks about why, statistically, it's safer working at Sizewell nuclear power station than living in Cornwall.

The final group considers questions about isotopes and decay chains, making a model of the nucleus of the aforementioned lithium-8. (Lucky people get to eat an alpha particle made up of Smarties - two neutrons and two protons - as they model the emission process.)

After a whirl of activity the 28 pupils return to their original tables and share findings, drawing up “bubble maps” summarising what they've discovered.

The last challenge is to work out the age of a piece of rock - granite from the Cairngorms, apparently - using bags of beads that represent decaying elements. There's also a skull to age - a sheep's or goat's, by the look of it. There are lollies for the group that gets the answer first, and they're claimed as the bell goes for morning break. Sadly, I'd have remained lollyless even if given all day to unlock the puzzle.

This is going to sound terribly patronising, but I'll say it anyway, as young people often get a bad press: the class was polite, friendly, well-behaved throughout, interested in what they were doing and focused, even when the going got tough. A credit to their school, in fact.

So, are young people really turned off by science? Kelly Howes, head of department at Chantry High, isn't convinced.

“I don't think so,” she says. “There is the interest there. Of that group you've just watched, 15 are 'triple scientists', who are the children who have opted to take additional science in preparation for A-level.

“Throughout the school, if you talk to pupils, they will tell you they like the practical aspects of science and their ability to learn through experimentation. Where there's a problem is meeting the National Curriculum criteria and hitting the exam dates, and that's where enthusiasm is lost.”

There's a lot of repetition, she says, and there's been a move away from practical skills.

“The best example I can give is the coursework, which used to be to design a practical [activity] and do it, and is now 'Let's look at a science-based news article and let's see whether or not we can answer a question about it.' The one we do with pupils is 'Should cannabis be legalised?' No practical in that! They have to evaluate the evidence there is, the information and opinions put out in the news, and write an 800-word report.”

Schools are now in the third year of this format, she says. Before that, there was more emphasis on hands-on work that held more appeal for students.

Jane Reason agrees that the way the curriculum is put together doesn't necessarily match the way children learn.

“It's got its hands tied because the nature of the coursework - which in theory was to make it more relevant to what people do in industry -actually turns it into a literacy exercise, because they're not doing practical science. They're doing 'Let's find out what's out there on the internet and look at that information.'

“Now, that's a relevant skill, but it's not a skill you just use in science. It brings in the relevancy of science as part of everyday life, but it doesn't bring in the practical skills; and it doesn't, therefore, encourage those kids whose literacy skills are not very good but whose practical skills are very, very good.”

Jane recognises that many children do find scientific concepts quite hard to fathom. “With physics, particularly, I think you need to be a very good mathematician; you've got to be able to imagine things, because you can't see them practically.”

Visual aids, then, are crucial.

“When we study electrical circuits, you can't see what's happening in the wire, so we go out on the field and we become the charges that are moving around the circuit, and the pupils physically run in and out of stools, doing star-jumps and things like that, to get the idea of what's going on.

“Science is no different from any other subject; it relies on quality teaching. There are a lot of good teachers, but you wouldn't believe it from what the press tends to tell you!”

KNOWLEDGE of chemistry, physics and biology is important because science makes our lives what they are, says teacher Jane Reason.

She's brought home the point to pupils by asking them to imagine what their morning would have been like without electricity. No light-bulbs, toasters, TV, mobile phones . . . “They suddenly realise how dependent we are - and yet we've only had electricity for about 100 years.”

Jane, who's also an assistant head at Chantry, says an understanding of science allows us to question things we hear, see and read.

A good example is the confusion over the triple vaccine MMR. Years later, we're looking at a measles epidemic. “If people could understand that one report that this 'MIGHT be a link' doesn't mean 'there IS a link' - and understand the scientific principles that underline such things - that's really important.”

She accepts, though, that some folk working in science could do more to widen its appeal.

“Scientists need to realise you can't just expect people to enjoy your subject because you do. It's like teaching any subject; you've got to sound like you're interested in it, and engaged and enthusiastic, and you've got to put your message across adequately. You have to realise that complex descriptions don't necessarily work and that not everybody gets it.”

Media generalisations can also make science appear unattractive. “It's often portrayed as not relevant, boring, difficult, badly taught . . .” she says. “Everybody's been to school, and invariably they've had a physics teacher they didn't understand, and so everyone has a view - even if it's years since they were last in a classroom!”

What they say . . .

SOME of the Year 11 pupils agree that hands-on activities are important in bringing science to life.

“Basically, doing the practical work helps you learn,” says Ryan Culley. Corey Miller concurs: “The practicals explain the theory.” Charley Christie says there's often an element of choice with the practical work that's part of their course, and that's helpful. All three lads are 15 and taking triple science. Corey and Charley hope to go on to study medicine.

Stacey Balls, 16, and Samantha Pond, 15, meanwhile, are looking at possible careers in accountancy/finance. Both opted to limit themselves to the compulsory science pupils have to take until the end of Year 11. Sam admits she'd have been happy to have ditched the subject altogether if she'd been allowed. “Science isn't one of my strongest subjects; I'm not that interested in it,” she says - to protests from the boys that she's actually one of the best students. Stacey says she would probably have dropped everything but biology if she could have done.

They too like the practical work, though not the dissection of things like hearts and eyes! The help pupils get with science in the GCSE years is appreciated; they're often encouraged, for example, to stay after school spend some time on coursework.

Kelly Howes, Chantry's head of science, says that while there's roughly an even split of males and females at GCSE level, it varies at A-level. Her Year 12 biology group, for instance, has two boys and nine girls - a common gender ratio with the subject. Physics traditionally attracts more boys than girls, while chemistry is more equal.

Why not take a look at:

A BBC article in which historian Lisa Jardine asks “Can we recapture the excitement of science?”

Deadly dull or a thrill a minute? An easy subject or tortuously difficult? What were - or are - your experiences of science in the classroom? Did you become more interested after leaving school? We'd love to hear. Email or write to Science, Features Department, East Anglian Daily Times, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN.