Science, Society and Sims: The future of science education
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2-3 November 2005
Coventry University Technology Park
Lyndsay Grant, Futurelab
With a new science curriculum due to be rolled out in September 2006, this is a timely moment to consider the future of science education. The key issue concerning educationalists seems to be readdressing the question of what and whom science education is actually for. Futurelab's conference explored this question from a number of viewpoints over the course of two days, with a stimulating mixture of views.
Annika Small, Futurelab's Managing Director, opened the conference with a look at how, as in the film Lost in Translation where the characters are disconnected from the foreign culture in which they find themselves, science can seem like an unfamiliar place that we are unable to operate within and don't know how to read. A focus on how we can allow young people to participate in science became one of the themes throughout the conference.
As the UK moves towards a 'knowledge economy', scientific skills and understanding will be critical. Consequently there is concern that young people are leaving school without an understanding of science that will enable them to participate in this knowledge economy, and that the present education system is not doing enough to produce the scientists of the future.
These twin themes of science for citizens and science for scientists continued throughout the conference, as people looked at how to inspire interest in science for both the non-specialist and future science professionals.
Steve Woolgar, Professor of Marketing at Oxford University's Said Business School, gave the first keynote of the conference. He took a cautious look at how virtual and digital technologies could influence science education. The impact of new technologies has great potential: virtual and digital technology could change how we participate in communities, and the distribution of knowledge, information and expertise has the potential to be vastly widened in a digital and virtual age. However, he stressed the importance of caution, warning against the hyperbole surrounding digital technologies - or "cyberbole". We should be aware of the social factors and unexpected uses of technology that affect how it is actually used in a given situation, and how far they live up to the promises of a virtual science education.
Jonathan Osborne of King's College London and co-editor of the influential science report 'Beyond 2000' followed up with second keynote of the morning, looking at the past, present and future of science learning. Osborne stated that science education as it is currently practised in English secondary schools is atomised and incoherent, and many students still leave education without much enthusiasm for science. Why should this be, when children at the very start of secondary school report an attitude of awe and wonder towards the study of science? Osborne convincingly argued that this disillusionment with science is at least partly explained by the focus on recall in assessment, the repetitive nature of the curriculum, the lack of relevance of topics to the world in which young people live, the avoidance of big themes and ideas, and the view that each stage of education serves to lead on to further science study rather than being an education in its own right. As a vision of future science education Osborne argued that a science education that focuses exclusively on the accepted knowledge and theories of science, without also considering the processes of how science is done, misses the point.
The questions about whom and what science education is for, and who should control the nature and content of science education were addressed directly in a panel session. John Lawrence of the Association for Science Education chaired a debate in which Dr Goéry Delacôte, Chief Executive of the science, nature and arts visitor and learning centre At-Bristol, Mark Ellse, Principal of Chase Academy in Cannock and a former A-level physics examiner, and Jonathan Osborne gave their views on the issues surrounding who should determine a science curriculum and were quizzed by members of the audience. The debate turned on the question of engaging students in the study of science, and whether ideas of relevance and science for public understanding were dumbing down 'real' science, whether a smaller content burden in the science curriculum would bring improvements, and letting the learner's voice be heard in the conversations about their education.
After these lively keynotes and debate, all delegates were able to take part in practical workshops with others from a variety of scientific and educational fields to consider how digital technology might help support science learning in the future. Ideas included a life simulation website that students could manipulate and add to, an online multimedia forum for evidence-based discussion within and between schools, an interactive virtual reality space in which students can be immersed in simulations, an online template to support science debates, and a digital courtroom in which students could make cases with evidence to a jury of peers.
A series of parallel sessions showcased emerging projects and approaches to teaching science and looked more closely at the Twenty First Century Science curriculum and assessment.
Richard Kimbell, Professor of Technology Education at Goldsmiths College, and former design and technology teacher, presented the e-scape project. E-scape is a prototype project to assess individual performance within a collaborative structure. It is based on a traditional design environment with information feeding through a PDA design sketchbook to a web-based e-portfolio. It captures the emergent story of design process for assessment, and for use as a dialogue in the students' own learning.
Tim Boundy, Education Officer at the National Space Centre in Leicester, and Lyndsay Grant, Learning Researcher at Futurelab, presented the Space Mission: Ice Moon project. The project is a role play simulation in which students are put in the role of scientific experts with a mission to rescue four astronauts who have been trapped under the ice of Jupiter's moon, Europa. Using video-conferencing and broadband technology, students are linked up to a 'flight commander' at the National Space Centre, who guides the students through the mission as they receive and interpret data and attempt to rescue the astronauts before their oxygen runs out.
Ben Barker, Learning and Programmes Manager at the science centre At-Bristol, presented CONNECT, a project connecting several museums and science centres across Europe in an Augmented Reality project. Combining elements of virtual reality with the physical exhibits in science centres, young people can explore further the properties of certain exhibits.
Tony Sherborne, from the Centre for Science Education at Sheffield Hallam University, is using a NESTA Fellowship to look at how techniques from the media and entertainment world can be brought into the science classroom to provide a captivating learning experience. He argues that we can learn techniques of narrative that are successfully employed in movies to engage learners. Examples of relevant and timely science issues and activities are provided on Sherborne's UPD8 website.
Jennifer Burden of the University of York and Patrick Craven, Assistant Director of e-Assessment at OCR gave an overview of the Twenty First Century Science Curriculum and Assessment model, looking at the changes to the curriculum and assessment model from September 2006. Assessment has long been seen as a constraint on a stimulating and engaging curriculum and pedagogy. New models of e-assessment accompanying the Twenty First Century Science curriculum are designed to remove these barriers and to allow students to demonstrate their ability in a variety of ways.
Peter Cochrane, Business Angel and Consultant for ConceptLabs, CA, is a leading light futurologist. He talked about the current exponential growth rate of new technology, predicting that the next 20 years will see more change than the last 200, seeing advances including wearable computers and the rise of nanotechnology. In education, the personal ownership of technology is critical, with homes having more and more powerful technology than schools. Cochrane argues that instead of equipping schools with technology we should be equipping students.
Science, Society and Sims showed the future of science education to be a critical area of debate if we want to ensure a scientifically knowledgeable population as well as creating the expert scientists of the future. Technology can and does play an important role in making science relevant, engaging students and keeping their sense of wonder about science and the world, whilst not forgetting to beware of falling into the trap of cyberbole.