Analysis: Search for the formula to put spark in science

September 6, 2002

Next week's BA Festival will portray science in rude health. But students are shunning maths, physics and chemistry. What should universities do? Claire Sanders reports

Oxford University has put an entire pre-university chemistry course on its website. The Institute of Physics is developing a new physics degree with less mathematics. Imperial College, London, is sending its postdoctoral students into schools to teach maths and science.

"I do not think there is a chemistry department in the country that has not changed its course in recent years to attract more students and help some of them catch up," said Graham Richards, chair of chemistry at Oxford.

But when the House of Commons science and technology committee reported on Science Education from 14 to 19 in July, universities were heavily criticised. The report says: "The onus should be on universities to adapt to the changing nature of their intake. Where universities require greater mathematical skills, they should take action themselves."

Ian Gibson, chair of the committee, has said: "Universities are not doing enough to help students. They say they are but they need to do far more."

The most recent report to spell out what is wrong with science education is the government's strategy for science, engineering and technology, Investing in Innovation , published in July.

"The government is concerned that fewer pupils are choosing to study areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics at A level and beyond," it says.

In April, Sir Gareth Roberts's review, SET for Success: The Supply of People with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Skills , laid out the figures, which showed serious falls in students taking A levels and degrees in maths, physics and chemistry. In particular, the number of students studying A-level physics fell by more than a fifth between 1991 and 1999, and the number of entrants to chemistry degrees fell by 16 per cent between 1995 and 2000.

Investing in Innovation proposes a range of measures to improve maths and science education in schools, but it also sets out what it expected of universities.

It acknowledges the challenge of teaching students with varying levels of "prior knowledge and skills", but says: "Responsibility for designing and delivering courses lies with institutions, and it is ultimately for them to make sure that they teach students what they need to know in order to progress in science, engineering and mathematics courses."

The government has launched an inquiry into post-14 maths and says in the strategy that it will work with universities and colleges to pilot and evaluate "different approaches to bridging the gap between students' prior knowledge and the requirements of higher education study".

Ian Stewart, professor of mathematics at Warwick University, argues that the problem lies firmly with schools and that universities cannot "level down" any more. In July he wrote a letter to Dr Gibson.

"I informed him that universities have already made extensive changes to admit more science students with lower A levels, that poorly qualified students cannot be taught without more resources and asked why universities should be expected to do the work that should be done in schools," he said.

"Physics departments have already moved to a four-year degree to enable students to catch up, maths departments now do in four years what they used to do in three, chemistry dropped maths as an entry requirement. How much further can we go?"

Derek Raine, head of teaching at Leicester University's physics department, takes a different line.

Dr Raine said: "It is very naughty of MPs to think that universities can remedy faults in the school system, but it is equally naughty of universities to think that the school system is there for their benefit. There has to be clear accommodation on both sides."

This is what Leicester is trying to do with the development of a new degree called i-science.

"The 'i' stands for integrated or interdisciplinary. We want to take people interested in going into the media or management or teaching and give them a strong scientific education that also exposes them to the skills an arts graduate would have," Dr Raine said.

Students would be expected to leave with a basic maths understanding, taking them somewhere between AS level and A level. It is hoped that the course, yet to be formally approved, will double the number of students studying science at Leicester.

Dr Raine stressed that the physics department at Leicester had a long tradition of taking a wide range of students.

Early next month, a working group set up by the Institute of Physics will report on plans for a new degree in physics. The group was set up after a 2001 inquiry into undergraduate physics by the institute. "There is a case for a new degree drawing heavily upon physics - being more interdisciplinary in focus and accessible by undergraduates with more modest mathematical experience," the inquiry said.

Philip Diamond, higher education manager at the institute, said: "The group is looking at the market for a degree with more liberal entry requirements and is in discussion with the Teacher Training Agency about how such a degree could lead to a smooth passage into teaching."

Neville Reed, general manager for recruitment, members services and communications at the Royal Society of Chemistry, stressed that university departments were doing a great deal to promote chemistry and to teach in novel ways.

"York has developed a new induction period for students and an innovative curriculum. Nottingham has developed good relations with local teachers," Mr Reed said.

Professor Richards said that university departments had to adapt. "I taught chemistry at Stanford in America for years. That university took bright people and enabled them to catch up quickly. I remember being shocked that first-year students did not know that N stood for nitrogen - something that I would expect of Oxford first-year undergraduates. But by the end of the course the American students surpassed Oxford's."

He recognises that state-school pupils cannot come with the prior learning of independent-school students. "At Winchester every student does A-level maths. How can the state sector compete with that? Schools are very laudably seeking to improve scientific literacy among the population as a whole while also allowing those really serious about scientific careers to progress swiftly. It is a difficult balancing act."

Robin Millar of the department of educational studies at York University is working on a pilot for a new science GCSE.

"What we are doing is essentially experimental. Internationally, we are all grappling with the problem of how to broaden scientific understanding as well as allowing excellence to flourish. When education was largely selective, this was not so much of a problem. Now it is an issue for schools and universities."

But Professor Stewart said: "I've watched my subject be destroyed by governments that don't understand it. School reforms have improved the teaching of the middle group of students while neglecting the bright. Now the government wants universities to do that as well. Universities cannot be the whipping boys for government failures."

Key schemes to improve school science
The National Centre for Excellence in Science Teaching is being set up to ensure that all primary schoolteachers can improve understanding of science. The centre, which is being founded in partnership with the Wellcome Trust, will have up to ten regional centres.

* A capital investment programme for school laboratories was launched in July as part of the government's spending review.

* The government is to pay for science, mathematics, information technology and engineering undergraduates and postgraduates to teach in schools.

"The government's aim is to ensure that, as quickly as possible, all secondary schools within easy reach of a university are covered by the programme," says its response to the Roberts review. It adds that the government will seek to work with the organisers of the Researchers in Residence Scheme, Setnet, the pilot Undergraduate Ambassadors Programme and the new initiative developed with Imperial College and GlaxoSmithKline in advancing the scheme.

n To attract science and mathematics graduates to teaching, a range of measures has already been introduced. They include golden hellos, differentiated teaching grants, the payment of student loans and other measures. The School Teachers Review Body is looking at ways of allowing schools more freedom to offer such packages.

* A new approach to GCSE science will be piloted by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority from September 2003.

Most students take double science GCSE from 14 to 16. "The course aims to provide a general science education for all, and, at the same time, to inspire and prepare some for science post-16. It does neither of these well," says the science and technology committee report Science Education from 14 to 19 .

In the pilot, all students will take a common single-core GCSE. This course, which will contain serious science, will help students to analyse risk and take informed decisions on medical, health and lifestyle issues.

Students will also have the option of taking a second or third science GCSE that will better prepare them for A levels.

* The government is preparing an inquiry into mathematics learning from 14 onwards. It will focus on the needs of employers, professional bodies and education institutions.


What's wrong with science subjects?

Chemistry
Between 1991 and 1999, the number of students taking A-level chemistry fell by 3 per cent.

Between 1995 and 2000, the number of entrants to chemistry degrees fell by 16 per cent.

"The disappearance of part-time day-release courses, which pushed many HND students on to degree courses, has accounted for much of this drop," said Neville Reed, general manager for recruitment, member services and communications at the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Although acknowledging the decline, he cautioned against linking physics and chemistry too closely. "One cannot assume that the problems of physics relate to chemistry. Chemistry, for example, attracts a high percentage of women," he said.

He also said that there was a fairly good geographical spread of chemistry departments.

Graham Richards, chairman of chemistry at Oxford University, said: "One of the great sadnesses is the decline of the northern chemist. At one time, the chemistry department here was populated with ICI offspring from the ICI homelands around Huddersfield and Runcorn.

"I remember asking these kids why they wanted to be chemists, and the reply was, 'Well, that's where the money is.' That is just not the case now."

Mathematics
Between 1991 and 1999, the number of students taking A-level mathematics in England fell by 9 per cent.

This year, the number of students applying to read maths degrees fell by 12 per cent and, as of last month, the number of admissions was down by nearly 6 per cent compared with the same time last year.

"The UK faces extremely serious problems relating to the supply and the mathematical preparation of entrants to university courses in mathematics, science, engineering and technology," says the 2000 report Tackling the Mathematics Problem , which was produced by the London Mathematical Society, the Institute of Mathematics and the Royal Statistical Society.

It continues: "Mathematics, science and engineering departments appear unanimous in their perception of a qualitative change in the mathematical preparedness of incoming students."

The report expresses alarm that the push towards a broader education means that fewer and fewer students are studying maths and science A levels in preparation for higher study.

"In 1965, 38 per cent of A-level students studied only science and mathematics; in 1993, the percentage had dropped to 16 per cent," it says.

Of GCSE, it says: "We need an urgent and serious examination of what levels of traditional numerical and algebraic fluency are needed as a foundation for students' subsequent mathematical progress, and of how such levels of fluency can be reliably attained."

As in physics, it notes: "There is still a desperate shortage of properly qualified mathematics graduates at all levels of the teaching profession."

The most recent Ofsted subject teaching report for science says: "(In mathematics) there are insufficient teachers to match the demands of the curriculum in one school in eight, a situation that has deteriorated from the previous year."

Essex University shut its maths department this year, and there are widespread concerns that the merging or closing of departments is seriously undermining maths teaching in universities.

Physics
Between 1991 and 1999, the number of students taking A-level physics in England fell by 21 per cent. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of entrants to physics degrees fell by 7 per cent.

"Physics has traditionally had the double-entry require-ment of a maths and physics A level and been perceived as a hard subject," said Philip Diamond, higher education manager at the Institute of Physics.

Last year, the institute published Physics - Building a Flourishing Future: Report of the Inquiry into Undergraduate Physics . The report draws attention to the drop in the number of physics students and to the failure of physics to attract female students. It also calls for a new degree that requires less maths input.

It says that since 1994 the number of universities offering physics degrees has declined from 79 to 53. "One consequence of such a decline is the emergence of 'deserts' in undergraduate physics teaching - regions of the UK not served by a locally focused university physics department."

This will mean that students forced by financial pressures to study from home will simply be unable to take physics, the report says.

The acute shortage of physics teachers is highlighted: "A report from the Council for Science and Technology showed that, of those teaching physics at Key Stage 4 in England, 66 per cent do not have a related degree, and 29 per cent do not even have a physics qualification at A level."

In 1998, a quarter of physics teachers were over 50 and only 11 per cent under 30.

Correction
This article incorrectly states that the University of Essex had shut its maths department this year. The university is reviewing its provision of mathematics and will report to senate in December. If a decision is taken to close the department, it would be unlikely to shut before 2005.

 

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments