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Science Education Rocks - OK?

1. Year 10 students investigating sea bed sediments with Dr Simon Boxall on the School of Ocean and Earth Science research training vessel Callista

Simon Boxall*, Joy Moloney** and Jim Andrews* extol the virtues of getting undergraduate scientists into school classrooms to inspire and encourage the next generation...

Geoscientist 17.6 June 2007

  • "Went to the National Oceanography Centre yesterday, it totally rocked! We went out on a research boat in the morning and trawled and grab-sampled the sea bed then played with the seaweed and mud and crabs 'n stuff…. I got the coolest geeky T-shirt with the Centre logo on – I’m never taking it off! " Emily’s blog (sixth form student).
  • "Thank you for the amazing day we had. At first I thought I would hate it because it is science but I loved it. " Danni, year five, after a school visit.
  • "Thank you for putting the time and effort into the most exciting splendid day ever. My mum got annoyed because I couldn’t stop going on about oceanography after." Kelly, year eight, after a school visit.
These may seem somewhat alien quotes from school pupils in an era when science, and Earth science in particular, are on the wane in schools across the UK (and other countries). The obvious enthusiasm from the pupils followed their participation in a programme where University of Southampton undergraduates take science into local schools.

On board Callista – 6th form students investigating the contents of a trawl net The UK tradition of studying physics, biology and chemistry as separate subjects at GSCE level has gone and has been replaced by single modules covering a very broad spectrum. While some UK degree courses are thriving, a growing number of science and Earth science departments are closing down or merging. Different influences are affecting this pattern. Students may, for example, be opting for the perceived greater excitement of media studies or, in an era of fees, courses that are seen as more likely to lead to well-paid jobs.

The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has set up a number of programmes in recent years to address the resulting shortfall in science and technology skills. Many of these come under the auspices of the widening participation scheme, Aim Higher – one of whose most productive initiatives has been to put successful students into schools as "ambassadors". Two parallel programmes are currently increasingly popular, the Undergraduate Ambassador Scheme (UAS) and the Student Associates Scheme (SAS).

An Ambassador showing the delights of deep sea creatures to a class of year 10 pupilsBoth programmes involve undergraduate students from university science departments taking their subject into local schools on a regular basis. This creates a strong bridge between schools and their local university, and helps to raise the HE aspirations of pupils. UAS is a formal component of a degree course with credit points (usually at third-year level) and SAS students are paid for their work.

Both schemes provide a chance for students to develop a broad range of skills that are highly rated by employers. Admission tutors for PGCE courses also like it when their applicants have already tried teaching and are going into the profession with their eyes open.

The programmes not only help to put HE "onto the radar", but also enrich science and geography curricula and bring these subjects alive. What better role models for school pupils than young enthusiastic undergraduates, after all? Pupils can relate to students who are closer to their own age and share similar experiences, creating an openness that promotes self confidence and aspiration.

Southampton experience

GCSE results for Southampton vs national trends. The overall pass rate has increased but Southampton has underperformed. However for science subjects Southampton has outperformed. The increase in pass rate commenced as UAS students first began workThe University of Southampton has this year placed 105 students on the UAS and 60 on the SAS. Over half of these students are studying Oceanography, Geology, Geophysics, Geography or Environmental Science. The students spend up to 15 days during a semester, working with the schools (after having passed through Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks and initial training at the University). They begin as classroom assistants or observers; as their confidence grows they will lead lessons in the classroom. In addition, students undertake science projects. This might involve monitoring a school pond over a seasonal cycle, looking at the geology of the school environment, stretching pupils at the top, and raising achievement at the bottom ends of the ability spectrum. We also encourage them to bring classes into the University for hands-on experiences. Some (as you will have seen from the quotes) some even get their classes aboard a research vessel.

A geology student ambassador,(on the far right), in a training session learning to work as a team. The bridge used more tape than paper but did support the tutor at the end! Does it work? The first reactions of schools – before they actually got involved in the scheme – are often lukewarm, citing unwanted extra workload and risk. Worse still, trying to persuade heads of science that oceanographers and geologists are proper scientists can still be an uphill struggle. However, once a school has gone through a cycle, we find that not only do they want more students but that they prefer geoscientists – who can apply their subject and do not refuse to take a biology class just "because they are physicists". They inspire pupils with the natural world as a whole.
It also shows pupils that "science" does not have to equate with "lab". Moreover, we have also seen a 50% increase in the number of students going into teaching – young geoscientists transferring a passion for their subject to future generations.

Further information

* School of Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton; ** Faculty of Engineering Science and Mathematics Learning and Teaching Coordinator, University of Southampton