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


Memorandum submitted by the BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science)


  1.  The BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) exists to promote better public awareness and appreciation of science. It is the only such organisation that is truly nation-wide, with a comprehensive multi-disciplinary[59] base and with an open membership that is wholly dedicated to this end. The BA was founded in 1831, is incorporated by Royal Charter and is a registered charity.

  2.  The BA fulfils its mission by:

    —  organising exemplary programmes and activities locally, regionally and nationally; and

    —  providing a focal point for the community of those who communicate science particularly in non-formal settings.

  3.  Through these means, the BA seeks to contribute to science education in its broadest sense by:

    —  fostering open, informed, public discussion of the economic, environmental, ethical and social opportunities and issues raised by advances in and applications of science;

    —  providing opportunities for people to participate in scientific activities and to experience the excitement and practical uses of science in a wide variety of contexts; and

    —  encouraging growth in the number and quality of activities concerned with the public communication of science and science-related issues throughout the UK, and increasing their overall impact.


  4.  The BA has an active programme for young people. This programme complements and enriches the mainstream school and college curriculum. In the 14 to 19 age range the programme includes the CREST award scheme, the VISIONS programme of events and on-line debates together with BA Science Communicators which are summarised in the annex.[60]

  5.  In addition to these enrichment activities, the BA has a long-standing interest in education generally and science education in particular. The BA's Education Section is one of 16 specialist groups that provide input to the BA, especially to the programme of the BA Festival of Science but also to consultation responses such as this one. At various stages in its history the BA has commissioned significant reports on aspects of education. For example, following Sir Claus Moser's 1991 Presidential Address, the BA established the National Commission on Education, with funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. The Commission's report[61] made recommendations across wide areas of education; many have subsequently become reality.


  6.  The BA believes that young people in the 14 to 19 age range should have the opportunity to take part in enrichment schemes of the kind offered by the BA and by other organisations. These types of activities can benefit both those with a general interest in science and those who have ambitions to take up scientific careers. They can capture the imagination and motivate young people.

  7.  Currently the inflexibility and content-overload of the formal curriculum, the relatively narrow range of personal qualities rewarded by the qualifications framework , the pressures on pupils to pass examinations and on teachers to "deliver" results according to very specific performance targets inhibits the uptake of valuable opportunities presented by the BA and other organisations and tends to restrict these opportunities to young people in the more favoured schools and colleges.

  8.  The possibility of a more flexible curriculum over the 14 to 19 age range with less emphasis on formal certification at the age of 16 would make it easier for schools and colleges to offer young people both their entitlement in terms of formal qualifications but also enrichment of the kind that we know to be of great value. We recommend that accreditation of student performance at the age at which students leave school should be designed to give recognition not only to qualifications gained as a result of taught courses but also to awards and achievements arising from enrichment activities.

  9.  More generally, the goals of science education for all students from 14 to 19 should be:

    —  the development of understanding of widely applicable concepts;

    —  the ability to identify the relevance of these concepts, and to apply them, to real life situations and significant issues which impact on all citizens;

    —  an understanding of how scientific knowledge is built up and of its strengths and limitations;

    —  an ability to read critically, discuss and communicate about scientific explanations, predictions and claims.

  We welcome recent moves by government and its agencies towards this view.

  10.  The implications of accepting these goals for the content of science education are that the general concepts chosen for development should be those which have relevance to major issues, relating for example to[62]:

    —  health, disease and nutrition;

    —  maintenance and sustainable use of species;

    —  interdependence of physical and biological systems;

    —  pollution of various kinds;

    —  production and loss of soil;

    —  weather and climate; biotechnology;

    —  use of materials and waste disposal;

    —  use and conservation of energy;

    —  transportation.

  11.  The implications for teaching are that:

    —  starting points should be the situations in which the concepts to be developed are to be applied, so that relevance is established from the start;

    —  students should know that what they are studying is important and why it is important;

    —  methods of study should include some practical work to give the experience of testing predictions or answering questions through scientific inquiry. This practical work must be purposeful, with computer technology used to increase efficiency, accuracy and to reduce the tedium of repeated measurements, with data fully analysed and discussed in relation to the validity and reliability of the evidence gained, and used in addressing the question under investigation. Such practical activity will go a long way to achieving the goals if treated in this way. If well planned and fully exploited it does not need to be a frequent feature of science education, but should be a regular one and should include opportunities for students to plan and undertake an investigation of their own questions. Emphasis should also be laid on using secondary data to test and develop ideas, and particularly the critical use of data from the world wide web. The New Opportunities Fund ICT training initiative for teachers will address some of these issues but we believe that more needs to be done.

  12.  The implications for assessment are that a large element of the assessment of science at this stage should be student self-assessment, contributing to both formative and summative purposes of assessment. To achieve this, teachers need to make explicit the goals and the standards of performance expected, and to provide help for students in developing self-assessment skills. Students should be involved formatively in deciding how to improved their learning. For summative assessment, some form of profile or portfolio of work should be created to be summarised and graded in relation to explicit criteria. This process should involve students as well as teachers. If formal assessment is required, external problems, set in a real-life context and requiring extended responses from the students should be used.

  13.  In general science education at 14 to 19 should:

    —  be characterised by teaching methods and materials that recognise cultural diversity and reflect strategies that have been shown to be effective in meeting the needs of traditionally under-represented groups;

    —  show science as being provisional and non-dogmatic, open to inquiry and revision;

    —  utilise problem-solving approaches wherever possible;

    —  promote thinking and reasoning and make obvious scientific values;

    —  develop rational decision-making skills applicable to issues of personal/public concern

February 2002

59   The BA embraces the natural and social sciences, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Back

60   Not printed. Back

61   Learning to Succeed, Heinemann 1993, ISBN 0 434 00035 3. Back

62   Taken from the PISA framework for scientific literacy, OECD 1999. Back

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