Category Archives: curriculum

“Do your pupils have an energy gap?”

The Big Bang Fair, a big science and engineering event for schoolkids was held in Birmingham last month. Led by Engineering UK and supported by various government departments, charities, learned societies and businesses, it’s an annual event that’s been going for a while. They seem to have taken down the list of 2012 sponsors, but you can see a list of the 2011 ones in this leaflet (pdf), which included BAE Systems, Shell, EDF Energy and Sellafield Ltd.

Seeing as some of these firms are perhaps only too expert in making extremely big bangs, it’s upset a few people. Check out the BAE wikipedia entry, ‘products’ subheading if you don’t get why.

Anne Schulthess from CND happened to be at another education show in Birmingham that week and spotting the Big Bang, dropped in. She shared some photos, noting “basically it’s the arms fair for children. With a bit of environmental destruction thrown in for good measure”. Back in 2009, Scientists for Global Responsibility and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade condemned BAE’s role in the event (SGR/CAAT press release, reproduced on my old blog). I’d be tempted to suggest one of these groups try to set up a stall at the fair next year but even if Engineering UK let them, the £20,000 to £100,000 pricetag might well be out of the budget of a small NGO.

Industrial involvement in science education is nothing new. Take, for example, these adverts I found in some old copies of the National Association for Environmental Education’s magazine (c. 1978):

The Science Museum have a fair bit of history here: from the BNFL sponsored atomic gallery in the 1980s to Shell sponsorship of their climate gallery in 2010 (see also this 2008 freedom of information request on Shell and BP funding). I used to work on their Energy gallery, and it’d be depressing to watch visitors clock the BP logo, laugh and walk away.

I worry when I see reports that the Smithsonian were so pleased to have secured a sponsor that was ok with the idea of evolution that they let a bit of not very scientific attitude to climate change in (e.g. see ThinkProgress, 2010). I also worry when I hear about teaching resources designed to stress the uncertainty of climate change (e.g. see Guardian, 2012). I can see why groups like Liberate Tate focus on the corporate sponsorship of art and Greenpeace scale the National Gallery, but I worry slightly more about the involvement of the oil industry in exhibitions where their work is an actual topic in the content.

We should be careful of simply assuming corporate sponsorship means they have influence on content. Science Museum staff claim editorial independence from any of their sponsors. Just as, I noticed, the Guardian stresses Greenpeace had no say over editorial content of John Vidal’s report on industrial fishing in West Africa, even though the NGO paid his travel costs to Senegal. We should also recognise that there is a lot of scientific expertise in industry, just as Greenpeace give Vidal access to places he wouldn’t otherwise see. Science isn’t just a matter of what goes on in ivory towers, so perhaps it’s only right that such groups involved. Plus, seeing as people don’t seem to want to pay fees or taxes for publicly funded science communication, maybe it’s only sensible the Science Museum et al ask groups who’ve made a lot of money out of science and technology give something back. We can’t just rely on moneybags of the Wellcome Trust (which has its own complex economic history anyway).

As I’ve argued before, if businesses are going to have involvement in science education, I want to see what they think, warts and all. If groups like the Science Museum really have editorial control, they should take industrial sponsorship only if the company involved will also (a) give them their expertise, and (b) be happy for said expertise to be put under some scrutiny. Rather than retreat behind claims to scientific objectivity, science communication should wear it’s political fights on its sleeve, show science’s various institutional connections for what they really are. These sorts of debates are part of science in society and should be offered up and opened up for broader public discussion, appreciation and scrutiny.

I’ve worked with a load of instituions in science communication, from Girl Guiding UK to the Royal Society, with a fair bit of industrial sponsorship thrown in at times too. This included stints at CND, Mind and the Science Museum while I was still in my teens. For that reason, I don’t think we should be scared about opening up debate on the politics of science at educational events aimed at schoolkids like the Big Bang Fair. I coped with these issues and think others can too. We should show them BAE, but make sure they get a group like SGR along to help offer other sides too. We should trust young people more when it comes to the messiness of science in society.

Miracle Mineral Solution

If you keep an eye on the UK skeptic media you will have probably already heard the story of 15 year old Rhys Morgan and Miracle Mineral Solution (“Bleachgate”). If not, let me share it with you.

Crohn’s disease is horrible. Being a teenager is horrible. Have a read through The National Association for Colitis and Crohn’s Disease pages for 16-29 year olds to get an idea of what it’s like when both happen at once. Welsh teenager Rhys Morgan was diagnosed with Crohn’s a few months ago. He did what a lot of people with similar conditions do and joined some online support groups.

It’s probably worth repeating that Crohn’s is horrible. I should also stress that it’s a complex and unpredictable condition, the details of which medical science is still unraveling. Such support groups are not only an emotional support, but can be great for sharing information, knowledge and experience. They can also be ways of spreading things that aren’t so helpful, and they can emotionally difficult places too (I can recommend this book for some discussion of issues surrounding this).

Rhys was sceptical of one of the treatment being pushed on a forum, something called “Miracle Mineral Solution”. Very sensibly he did a bit of digging, and sound found that the FDA describes it as industrial bleach. Rhys shared his concerns with the forum, and a whole story of internet community nastiness followed. Watch Rhys’ videoblog for the full story, as he tells it himself so well (or see transcript on his blog).

When the story first broke about a month ago, it was covered extensively by skeptics bloggers, but no where else much. This week, there was an overview of the story in the Guardian, via a column by skeptic-blogger Martin Robbins. It’s great that Martin’s connection there gets the story into such a high profile site (and, as Paul Bradshaw says, it’d be good if lots of people link to Robbins’ piece with the words Miracle Mineral Solution…). Still, I’d have loved to see it covered by, for example, reporters on education or health beats too. Not just for the extension of coverage, but because I think it’s worth reflecting on the story from more than just a skeptic perspective.

There has been a move in recent years to make UK science education more about public engagement, designing curricula that not only train the next generation of scientists, but equip young people to use and critique claims to scientific authority as part of their everyday lives (see this GCSE for example). However, a lot of this sort of work seems to see the process as preparation for later life, as if active engagement is something adults too whereas kids are simply passive. Similarly, I’ve heard activists in young peoples’ health complain that under 18s are too often seen as “human becomings” rather than “human beings” when it comes to medicine; that teens are simply taught how to prepare for a healthy adult lives as if they have little role in their current existence.

I can see why people have been celebrating and supporting Rhys on this issue, but he’s not the only teenager to take such a sensible and active role when it comes to their health (e.g. the trustee of Body and Soul featured in this podcast). I suspect a lot of young people hope to get the best possible information about health; that they will spend time looking for such information and will be sceptical about what they find. Also that the care that others get good information too, and so share it about, and that they will get into fights with other young people and adults while they do so.

That’s why, for me the tale of Rhys Morgan and Miracle Mineral Solution isn’t just a story for or about skeptics. It’s a genuinely interesting, concerning and illuminating story of inter-generational health communication in a digital age, and one I’d have love to see talked about more.

EDIT: 19/9/10 changed reference to Martin’s piece in Guardian which was initially down as a blogpost rather than a column. See my comment on Paul’s blogpost for context. Also, look – the story has been picked up by a Kenyan newspaper and on the PLoS blogs.

Media Coverage of Science Education

Cross-posted from The Science Project.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have just published a report on the state and possible future of Science and Maths Secondary-School Education. From a group headed by Sir Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust, it is one of a series interrogating issues in science and society (see also one on engagement from Roland Jackson of the British Science Association, and another on the media from Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre).

I’ve been in and out of meetings most of the day, so haven’t had time to read any more than the executive summary. Well, the executive summary and the news coverage, which was pretty interesting in itself. So, I thought it was worth putting off reading the full report for a bit longer, and doing a quick blogpost pulling out the issues that the press seems to have decided to pull out of the report.

If you want to read the report itself, for yourself, you can download it here, complete with cover-pictures of hair-raising play with a Van der Graaf generator. Ah, where would science education imagery be without Robert Van der Graaf.

DBIS education report cover
First up, BBC online news, with Science and maths exams ‘need shake-up’ . They start by reiterating the report’s point that science and maths education have clearly been priority issues in recent years, but that nonetheless, people are still worried about it. They emphasise the report’s call for specialist teachers and more maths to be taught within science teaching. They also pick up on concern that the science and maths community want a greater say in school science. This is significant, considering a recent trend in science education to curricula that aims to serve the needs of “the public” before professional science. Note it was the director of the Wellcome Trust (which funds scientific research and some education and engagement), not a full-time educationalist, asked to lead this report. But I’m editorialising.

Next, The Times: Science lessons need more explosions and pyrotechnics, report says. This starts: “Science lessons should be more hands-on and exploratory, according to a new report that criticises a dangerous obsession with results that has stripped science teaching of explosions and pyrotechnics”. According to my rather rough Ctrl-Alt F research methodology, the word “pyrotechnics” doesn’t actually feature in the report. They then go onto reflect on the way “teaching to the test” has pushed out more “exploratory learning”. As they quote Walport, the “danger that assessment becomes the tail that wags the dog”. They cover the smaller issue of the report’s call for science and maths specialists to be paid more, before running through quotes from various stakeholders in the area.

I would now like to pause for a little rant. This is directed at the world in general, not the Times in particular, although they inspired it. Exploratory does not equal explosions. Similarly, just because an activity is hands-on, or demonstrated live in the classroom (as opposed to described in a textbook), it doesn’t mean it is an “experiment”. It certainly doesn’t make it investigative or “exploratory”. Simply being hands-on doesn’t necessarily mean the student is allowed to explore. Quite the contrary, some of the most explosive demonstrations are not only done by a member of staff for students to watch, but have exceedingly tightly defined and predicted/ predictable outcomes. The point of an explosive demo is generally that we know what’s going to happen (i.e. it’ll explode – a brilliant big bang of a dramatic ending). They are used to demonstrate why and how science already knows something. They can be exciting, inspiring and explain some aspect of science with immense clarity. By they allow little space for creative exploration. There is difference between expository and exploratory, explanation and experiment. I know they all start with the same three letters people, but get a grip.

Ahem. Rant over, onto The Telegraph: School science undermined by ‘easy’ exams. Their lead paragraph, interestingly I thought, stresses a language problem; that multiple choice questions leave students unable to express their understanding of scientific concepts. They also highlight, early-on, the ways in which examination boards sell their own textbooks to schools (and therefore fuel an exam-driven bite-sizing of curriculum). Like the BBC, the Telegraph are keen to note that science education has been a priority. They also pull out the report’s insistence that science courses have remained popular among young people. The focus of the piece though is (what I read the focus of the report to be…): problems endemic in the curriculum, qualifications and the structure of exams.

Next, the Daily Mail, who’s How Labour’s ‘reforms’ of A-levels have dumbed down exams pulls no punches. Apparently the report is “devastating [...] a damning indictment of the exam system”. Content-wise, their emphasis is again on the way the structure of exams and associated bite-sized curriculum effects (/prevents) understanding, referring to worries about the “use of the English language”. They make liberal use of the phrase: “dumbing down”. They also quote schools minister Iain Wright. As with some of the other pieces, this places Wright in a rather defensive position, as if he is only brought in for journalistic balance, to defend himself. I thought this was an interesting positioning: these BIS reports come from groups led by independent(ish) experts, but they are basically government publications, reflecting government desires for change (though they are also from BIS, not the DCSF…). The Mail’s piece ends with a reasonably tame quote from Malcolm Trobe, of the Association of School and College Leaders, underlining the distaste for modular assessment within teaching communities.

Finally, The Independent: Make maths and science exams tougher, says report. A relatively short piece, heavily reliant on quotes from the report itself. As their headline implies, their emphasis is a lack of challenge in the current curriculum (they aren’t clunky enough to use the “dumbing down” phrase, but they breath the sentiment nonetheless). They note complaints that the current system dose not give students enough of a chance to display or develop their depth of knowledge of the subject, that a “tick-box approach” to teaching and assessment lacks depth, and finish with a call for examiner to “devise searching questions for pupils”.

The Guardian haven’t at time of blogging, bothered. Which I thought was odd seeing as they have such strong science and education pages. I’m oscillating being saying this is probably because the issue is just a way to bash Labour (so the Guardian are avoiding it) or that they prefer more nuanced expert analysis on these topics (so are waiting to have a more thoughtful comment is free piece later in the week). Either prediction is largely (rather ridiculous) guesswork on my part though. They’ve likely just got other things to worry about. It’s easy to get your knickers in a terribly self-important twist about science education, especially worries that it’s just not as hard as it was in my day. Whether this generates anything more than rhetoric is another matter.

Before I sign off, I’d also like to note that none of these pieces quotes a child. There are all sorts of very understandable reasons for this, to do with press reporting as much as cultural norms (not to mention legal issues) surrounding education and/ or the voice of children. Still, I hope that as/ if the report’s recommendations are developed, young people are used are more than just cover- boys and girls.