Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Royal Astronomical Society

  All science educators are concerned about the falling numbers of young people choosing to follow science courses at school and subsequently at university.

  The Science Curriculum at GCSE has a useful amount of material on Astrophysics and Geophysics. The material is inspirational and up-to-date. It covers:

    —  observations of the earth from space and the use of space probes;

    —  the geological evolution of the earth, plate tectonics and seismic activity;

    —  the nature of stars, galaxies, black holes and the Big Bang; and

    —  the search for extra-terrestrial life.

  The A-level syllabuses contain appropriate amounts of material on Particle Physics and Astrophysics in their core and optional sections. The material is new to students and is quite challenging.

  GCSE and A-level material is assessed in a straightforward way and does not require excessive factual recall.

  There is an appropriate amount of practical activity for students. They can:

    —  find information about space probes on the Internet;

    —  observe the Sun and Sunspots; and

    —  use the National Schools Observatory and the Faulkes Telescopes (later in 2002).

  The mathematical content has been reduced to the bare minimum, particularly at A-level. University courses have had to adapt to the loss of skills, particularly of the calculus. This reduction of higher mathematical skills was intended to allow more students access to the A-level courses but has had little effect. Physics is a mathematical subject and a further reduction in mathematical content must be resisted at all costs.

  The Astrophysics and Geophysics themes in the 14 to 19 curriculum offer an inspirational insight into the way scientists create models of the universe and of the earth and how they gather and process data to test these models. This syllabus content is well received and is a useful counterbalance to the more material parts of the curriculum.

  The lack of a good career structure, particularly for career researchers, is a problem. It is easy for teenagers to have a picture of the career of a doctor or a lawyer. It is much more difficult for them to visualise the work of an astronomer or a geophysicist. The perceived lack of financial rewards relative to that of other professions is also a significant disincentive.

  Note: The Education Committee of the Royal Astronomical Society is investigating the possibility of setting up a free-standing AS-level in Space Studies. This course would take themes from the GCSE Double Science curriculum and extend them into a "space context". In particular, living in space, observations from space, formation and evolution of the universe, geological evolution of the planets and the exploration of the Solar System.

February 2002

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