Product has been added to the basket

Soapbox Scottish unenlightenment

gddfgdfgfdIs Scotland experiencing a loss of science breadth and reason? asks Ruth Robinson

In 2015, Scotland will discontinue the Higher Geology qualification. What would James Hutton think of this, I wonder? The Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) decided to close Higher Geology because of poor uptake by pupils. A previous Geoscientist article by Chris King and Ben Jones (‘Reasons to be cheerful?’ Geoscientist 21.05, June 2011) presented trends in A Level and Higher Geology that illustrate the low numbers taking Higher Geology recently. However, no new Geology teachers have been trained in Scotland since 1985 and there is a strong argument that low uptake is a direct consequence of poor provision.

However, enthusiasm for geology education is high across Scotland, where support is available. The GeoBus outreach project has involved 15,000 pupils in 120 different schools in Earth science teaching activities since January 2012; 82,000 pupils visit Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh annually, and a recent (unpublished) survey demonstrates that over 130 teachers are interested in offering the subject at Higher, given support.

This demand is not a sufficient argument for SQA to change their decision. They argue that geology content is now spread across subjects within Curriculum for Excellence; but our audit of the mandatory material in National 5 (Key Stage 4) and Higher estimates this to be minimal and disconnected coverage.

We have an opportunity to develop something new. A group including Peter Harrison (Ullapool High School), Joyce Gilbert (Royal Scottish Geographical Society), Stuart Monro (Our Dynamic Earth), John Banks (Maersk Oil Ltd) and I have met the Scottish Government to propose a new Higher in Earth Science. This would cover the solid Earth and Earth systems, the Earth science behind climate and environmental change through time and natural resource challenges, as well as covering core aspects of geology. It would build on the exciting research advances over the last 25 years and highlight the breadth of potential careers available.

If offered in S6 (Year 13), it is not in competition with other science and Maths Highers typically taken in S5, and Higher Earth Science could build on, and integrate, the learning achieved in other science subjects.

The transitional year between school and university or employment also provides an opportunity to develop independent learning and transferable skills that are generic to other subject areas, including 3D/4D visualisation and understanding concepts of uncertainty. We want our next generation of citizens to have an adequate grasp of the relevance of Earth science in the economy and for smart stewardship, not just an increased stream of Earth science graduates.

So - what would Hutton think of modern education systems? He would probably find our secondary science education awfully narrow. Data from the Trends in International Maths and Science Survey (2007) shows that Scotland ranks 39th out of 41 OECD countries in terms of the narrowness of its science teaching (SEEAG Report 2012). This could be improved by offering something with breadth, such as Earth science. We await a decision from the Minister for Learning, Science and Scots Language, Dr Alastair Allan, on our proposal.

* Ruth Robinson is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of St Andrews. She is also Director of the mobile Earth science outreach project, GeoBus.