Science in Schools: Do all students need to stand on the shoulders of giants?

Alom Shaha

26655292 233x300 Science in Schools: Do all students need to stand on the shoulders of giants?There is a massive metallic box in the middle of the Elephant & Castle roundabout that is impossible to ignore as you drive past. Few drivers or even local residents know that this futuristic looking box is a memorial to one of the greatest scientists in history: Michael Faraday.

Faraday grew up in South London, close to where his memorial stands, and went on to make discoveries that would change the world. The silver box at the Elephant and Castle contains an electrical substation – which in many ways would have been a more fitting tribute to Faraday if left uncovered, as it is his discovery of electromagnetic induction is at the heart of electricity generation in power stations around the world.

Faraday was a true giant of science and today’s physicists and electrical engineers stand on his shoulders. But unlike most contemporary scientists, Faraday was largely self-taught, driven to learn about the natural world by an insatiable curiosity.

Faraday is one of my heroes, not just because I grew up in the same neighbourhood but because his scientific rags to riches story inspired me, a Bangladeshi immigrant, to believe that anyone could be a scientist. Today, I am a Physics teacher at a comprehensive school in north London, hoping to do my own little bit to inspire future scientists.

On Monday morning, I shall stand where Faraday once stood, in the Royal Institution lecture theatre, and give my own short talk to hundreds of students attending an “Unconference” there. But I won’t be trying to teach these students anything. Instead, I’ll be posing them a question: should science be a compulsory subject in school and, if so, what exactly should we include in the ideal science curriculum (if there is such a thing)?

Science in England is compulsory for students up to the age of sixteen. But it is not necessarily obvious why this should be the case. Indeed, there may be strong arguments to suggest that not all students should be required to study science for so long if they have no intention of becoming scientists. It will be interesting to see what young people think.

Even if we all agree that science should indeed be compulsory, it’s unlikely we can agree upon a curriculum. Should the curriculum be focussed on creating “future scientists”, designed to equip those children who will grow up into scientists with the skills they’ll need? Or should it aim to make everyone “scientifically literate”, so that everyone can participate fully in a democratic society where science plays such an important role in our everyday lives? Or should school be the one place where we ignore this division between so-called “producers” and “consumers” of science and ensure that school is a place where, as science writer Alice Bell suggests, all students study the same thing and experience training to be a scientist as “a shared cultural experience”.

And what about the “facts” of science? There isn’t enough time to learn everything science has discovered, so should we concentrate on a few “big ideas” like evolution and the particle theory of matter or should we try to give as much of an overview as we can? Perhaps we should concentrate on more modern and “relevant” discoveries? Or perhaps we should teach as few “facts” as possible and concentrate on teaching more about the history and philosophy of science so students go away knowing more about “how science works”? And what about practical work? Is it really necessary for schools to spend so much money buying expensive science equipment when that money might be better spent elsewhere? The practicals done in school are not really like the science done in the real world and there is some research to suggest that they might be a waste of time.

These questions are ones which adult “experts” have grappled with in the past and they are ones which must be weighing heavily on the minds of those entrusted with developing the new National Curriculum. But they are questions which are rarely, if ever, put to school students. I can’t wait to hear what the young people at the unconference will make of them.

Alom Shaha physics teacher and a key note speaker at the Royal Institution’s “Unconference” hosted by the L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre.

The Ri Unconference is the first ever national event where 150 14-18 year olds from across the UK will be invited to debate the future of the science sector and have the opportunity to shape the future of science policy and decision making.

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  • stonedwolf

    True, but he was self-taught in the sense of a non-formal education. As a book-binder he had access to that rarest of privilege, effectively an academic library to himself which he devoured. After his apprenticeship he attended lectures at the Royal Institution and Royal Society, and was employed as a secretary, further giving him opportunity to study alongside academic peers that would normally be outside of his social circle.

    He was self-taught in the sense he had a nontraditional access to scientific education and the views of his peers, he was not self-taught in the sense of discovering things from first principles.

  • johnjacoblyons

    I would like to suggest the inclusion of an overview of the Scientific Method and some examples of how it has been applied to produce some well-known discoveries.  

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