Geoff Watts reports on a scheme that aims to halt a cycle of decline in maths and science by giving undergraduate role models credit for working in schools
With young people's enthusiasm for science still apparently waning, a modest project dreamt up by the writer and broadcaster Simon Singh is reason to take heart. The success of his Undergraduate Ambassadors Scheme (UAS), which is now entering its second year, has surprised and delighted everyone involved.
Science education is in decline. Take chemistry. In 1993, more than 42,000 sixth-formers sat an A level in the subject; by 2001, the number had fallen to 36,000. In the past five years, the number of students reading chemistry at university has fallen by more than a quarter. Two London colleges, Queen Mary and King's, have joined the list of institutions set to drop undergraduate chemistry courses. Small wonder that since 1996 the number of chemistry lessons taught by schoolteachers without a qualification in the subject has tripled.
Mathematics has been similarly affected by what Ray d'Inverno, professor of mathematics at the University of Southampton, describes as a vicious circle. "Because the teaching isn't very good, pupils don't like doing maths, so fewer of them come to university. In turn, fewer go into teaching, and the whole thing gets worse."
The pressing nature of these problems was brought home to Singh through meetings he had with teachers and lecturers while he gave talks in schools and university departments. Having studied physics at Imperial College London, Singh was familiar with its scheme for placing volunteer undergraduates in schools. He wondered if a system of awarding degree course credits in return for a spell spent teaching might boost numbers and commitment.
"I thought we could create a course module that had all the rigour of any other academic module," he says. "Undergraduates who taught in a classroom would pick up skills and credits. Teachers would get help. Pupils would have a role model."
Over dinner with staff at the University of Surrey after a talk in the physics department, he floated the idea. "The reaction was incredibly positive. They already had courses designed to develop management and other transferable skills, so they said they'd have a go at piloting this."
Singh used his own money to get things moving. He hired Ravi Kapur, a former colleague also with a media background, to start working on it. "We talked to anyone who'd tried to put students into schools or had done anything of this kind," Kapur says.
They found one other scheme in which students' work in a school was assessed and counted towards their final qualification. But it was not focused on science or confined solely to schools. So Singh and Kapur devised a module of their own. Kapur describes it as a flexible template.
"Participating universities don't have to go through the process of working out how they will draw up the course module, how they'll assess it and so on. We've done all that. But we've made it flexible enough to fit their needs." Students get a one-day intensive course on basic teaching skills to ensure that they don't walk unprepared into the classroom.
Last year was UAS's trial year. One physics and three maths departments took part, with a total of 28 students going into ten schools. D'Inverno was startled by the students' response when the new course option was announced.
"We'd lined up five schools and intended to send one student into each," he says. "We didn't think there'd be a high application rate, and we wanted to make sure we selected students who'd be good ambassadors for the discipline. We were amazed that 21 students applied. When we interviewed them, we found that the calibre was very high. So I went back to the schools and managed to get them to take 13."
"We think the ambassadorial role is very important," says Dick Bacon of Surrey's physics department. "We hope it will have an effect on pupils.
It's possible that interacting with undergraduates, learning about their experiences and possibly even getting inside universities could change pupils' views about going to university themselves."
Anne Skeldon of Surrey's maths department points out what schools can gain by taking part in the scheme. "Some are desperately under-resourced," she says. "They really appreciate the opportunity of having someone come in and focus a bit of attention on the pupils or do something different. One of the teachers said to me that they also valued the chance for their pupils to see that mathematicians could be relatively normal people."
Joanna Argyle, who teaches maths at South Wiltshire Grammar School, makes a related point about the importance of role models. "I teach girls. We have a lot who apply to university for medicine, but few who want to do maths - usually about one out of 120. Anything to boost that number has got to be good. We got the students to do a lunchtime talk about university life and about the kind of courses they're offered."
When places for UAS students were first being sought, Hugh Evans of Sholing Technical College near Southampton was running his school's maths department. With Sholing keen to get more pupils into maths, Evans was eager to take part. Like Argyle, he believes that everyone involved in the scheme benefited. "I worked with only one of the students," he says, "but it went really well. The pupils looked forward to her coming each Wednesday afternoon. They formed a good relationship. And the added bonus was that they talked about careers, what maths is like at university and so on."
Kapur says: "In one department, no fewer than 11 of the 13 (ambassadors) have gone straight on to do postgraduate certificates in education." All of the people involved with the scheme hope that UAS students won't be drawn entirely from the ranks of those already intent on teaching. At this stage, it's impossible to know - but Kapur reckons that no more than half of the first intake were already so predisposed.
Singh is optimistic about the scheme's future and its expansion into the life sciences. Fourteen university departments have signed up for the coming year, and more than 40 have expressed an interest for the year after. The ambassadors are on their way.