Archive for February, 2010

Science Education: A new report

February 28, 2010
Our Society: London Street Scene

Our Society: London Street Scene

This week saw the publication of BIS’s Science and Learning Expert Group’s report, “Science and Mathematics Secondary Education for the 21st Century”. In its own diplomatic way it says ‘science education is a shambles and we need to do something‘. ANd they comment specifically on many of the same points I have been banging on about since I learned about this scandalous situation. However despite their very welcome words, I am not holding my breath. Before I comment let’s do the basics:

The Report

This report is eminently rational and there is not that much to disagree with and plenty to rejoice about. It is really pleasing to hear the great and the good state profoundly that something about which one has been ranting on (I do that occasionally) is true. For example they comment that

…there is a strong perception that assessment has become the ‘tail that wags the dog’ of the education system and that the assessment process has been inadequate in the testing of students depth of subject knowledge and understanding of key concepts.

Recommendation 9 of their report is that QCDA should:

Ensure that the Higher Education sector and other stakeholders are engaged in the design and development of qualifications and assessment in ways that will enable them to accept accountability for and ownership of the quality of the system. In particular, standing STEM expert groups should be established in each major subject to advise on the development over time of 5-19 curricula and GCSE and A level criteria in these subjects. This should be part of a process within QCDA that puts partnership and shared ownership with stakeholders at the core of its culture. QCDA must ensure that it draws transparently on the best professional, academic and employer expertise in order to develop the National Curriculum, the qualifications criteria signed-off by Ofqual, and to advise ministers; and also ensure that stakeholders are clear about how they can influence the final products;

Summarising this means that QCDA need to make specification for exams which enable people to attend higher education, and not just lower the bar and let HE cope with the ensuing mess. Why weren’t they doing that already? Recommendation 11 begins

…the style of examinations should be rebalanced towards assessment of students’ in-depth problem solving and deeper understanding of subject concepts; and there should be greater emphasis on the accurate use of the English language in answers to examination questions.

Well I agree. Recommendation 12 is particularly withering in its comments on Ofqual. In particular it bluntly calls for the endorsement of text books by awarding bodies to stop! Wow! Since that is the purpose for which these bodies exist – the concept of their existing for the public good is now sadly laughable – I really find it hard to see that happening. They also recommend that bodies should not compete to lower standards! Well its a great idea, but it is very hard to see how it will come to pass.

The developing regulatory framework currently being developed by Ofqual for awarding bodies should be strengthened as follows:

●in approving A level and GCSE specifications, Ofqual should ensure that the awarding body has matched the specifications to meet fully the relevant subject criteria, and that sufficient examining expertise and resources are available to the awarding body to deliver their specifications;

the GCSE and A level awarding bodies should be regulated to prevent competition between them resulting in a lowering of examination standards;

●ensure that the governance mechanisms of the organisations that set curricula and qualifications criteria and that deliver the examinations provide the necessary executive challenge and public accountability for the quality of their work;

the practice of awarding bodies endorsing textbooks should be stopped; and

●awarding bodies should ensure that they recruit and ensure training for a sufficient supply of examiners to improve the quality of examination question-writing across the full range of science and mathematics specifications. This will be particularly important if the call for more mathematical content in questions is to be implemented effectively, and if we are to have better ‘How Science Works’ questions.

Recommendation 13 also reflects many of the things that I have heard A level teachers asking for:

There should be a major effort to reduce the modular burden of summative assessment at A level. This should include:

●restricting modular examination sittings to a single period during the Summer term to avoid disruption to teaching and learning at other times of the year and discourage unnecessary re-sits;

●making guidance, exemplar material and support available to any school which wishes to teach some or all of its A levels in linear fashion – ie with all the necessary examinations taken at the end of a continuous two year course; and

●the examinations at the end of the A level course should include synoptic questions aimed at ensuring that students retain an understanding of subject content and concepts across the breadth of the subject matter covered during the two year course of study.

And the report has lots more to recommend it. However, I doubt that almost anything will come to pass.

Why it won’t make any difference

The Report is sponsored by BIS, and not the DCSF who run QCDA. So comments in the report about what QCDA or Ofqual should do are likely to be ignored. The Expert Group were focused on improving education in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (collectively STEM subjects) whereas QCDA has a highly politicised agenda which focuses on continually lowering standards so that more people ‘pass’ public exams.DCSF can state that it is ‘responding to the concerns expressed’ or similar, and then do nothing. We did not end up where we are by accident – we ended up here having been driven here deliberately by people who view the current state of our exam system as an achievement!

And that’s it. The lunatics are still in charge of the asylum and this report is nothing more than confirmation of that by a panel of learned professors.

Protons for Breakfast Presentation#12!

February 28, 2010
Van der Graaff generator and electrified victim

Van de Graaff generator and electrified victim

This week we began the twelfth presentation of Protons for Breakfast to a record audience of 86 guests! Four weeks ago we had less than 30 people registered and I have been surprised what a little bit of leafleting and busking can achieve. I was a bit under the weather this week – in fact I felt quite light headed – but the feedback was good and I am looking forward to talking about light this week. However I keep forgetting how much work it takes to just answer people’s questions, both before the course starts and each weekend during the course. But is fascinating work and I enjoy it.

Just How Many Naturally Occurring Elements are there?

February 15, 2010
Photographic Periodic Table

Photographic Periodic Table

I love the periodic table and each time I revisit a site like Web Elements or PeriodicTable.com I discover something new. However, one secret of the elements not discussed there is the question of exactly how many of the elements are ‘naturally-occurring’. It is often stated that there are 92 naturally occurring chemical elements. And that is a good approximation. Unfortunately it is not strictly correct and that kind of thing irritates me. Let me try to explain.

  • Elements 43 (Technetium) and 65 (Promethium) do not occur naturally, so that would make for only 90 naturally occurring elements.
  • Element 83 (Bismuth) is the heaviest element which has any stable isotopes. All elements with more than 83 protons i.e. Element 84 (Polonium) and beyond have only unstable isotopes.
  • It could be argued that the amounts of Element 85(Astatine) and Element 87 (Francium) that exist any time is so low that they only barely ‘occur’ and shouldn’t really be counted. However if one includes these elements then one should also include the transiently created atoms of Elements 93 (Neptunium) and 94(Plutonium) which are created in naturally radioactive rocks from Element 92 (Uranium).

So what is my point? My points is that it would be lovely to have a simple number to say, but nothing is simple. When asked I generally say there are ‘about 100’ naturally occurring elements and leave the details to a later more intense discussion. Anyway. I’m glad I got that off my chest.

Science Beyond 2010

February 15, 2010
Science Beyond 2010

Science Beyond 2010

My friend and colleague Alom Shaha drew my attention to a document written at the start of the current attack on GCSE Physics. The document was called Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future: A report with recommendations (31 page pdf document) . The document has apparently been very influential and as one reads it there is a great deal to agree with. However, there are a few critical areas in which, with the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see how failings in the report have been translated in catastrophic failings in our exam system.

I hope to comment more on this in future weeks but one quote is central to two profound failures of our currents system:

FOR THE MAJORITY OF YOUNG PEOPLE, the 5–16 science curriculum will be an end-in-itself,which must provide both a good basis for lifelong learning and a preparation for life in a modern democracy. Its content and structure must be justified in these terms, and not as a preparation for further, more advanced study.

To say this is not, however, to disregard the needs of those young people who choose to pursue the formal study of science beyond age 16. The curriculum needs to cater for this choice, as it does for other personal and socially valuable choices and interests.

RECOMMENDATION ONE The science curriculum from 5 to 16 should be seen primarily as a course to enhance general ‘scientific literacy’.

One can see how this concept of education for scientific literacy is the central hub of modern GCSEs. However, it is a task at which the exams and the courses fail dramatically. And additionally they profoundly disregard the needs of those young people who wish to pursue the formal study of science beyond the age of 16. Summarising, this well meaning report has been badly implemented.

Later in the report there is talk about the importance of narrative. And this is something with which I profoundly agree. The difficulty is that the real narrative of science – which is powerful and compelling – has been replaced with a series of tales barely more coherent than the ‘Just So stories‘. Real narrative has been replaced by Fairy Stories which provide no coherent framework for understanding science.

I will try to provide more commentary on this in the coming weeks. But for the moment I invite to read the report. And weep.

Skepticism about Climate Skepticism

February 15, 2010
Skeptical Penguins

Skeptical Penguins

I don’t generally just blog to recommend another web site because, well, because that’s a bit boring. But Skeptcial Science is an excellent site and worth making an exception for. And it even has its own iPhone app! Without being polemically ‘pro’ global warming, this site simply looks skeptically at the arguments used by people to pretend nothing is happening. It links to source papers and does not gloss over complications in explanations of real phenomena. Overall I found the site clear and refreshing in the extreme. Strongly recommended.

Physics Busking

February 14, 2010
Physics Busking in Teddington Broad Street

Physics Busking in Teddington Broad Street

The last couple of Saturdays I have spent outdoors, ‘busking’ at a couple of locations around Teddington. Accompanied by a couple of resolute Protonista guerrillas, I braved the cold weather and made it even colder by spilling a little liquid nitrogen over some balloons.

Firstly, I just want to say thank you to Lindsay, Clive and Andrew and Sharmila who are grade A stars. Colleagues like this are rare and just being around them is a prevelige.

Secondly, I find it curious just what you can do on the street and not get arrested. Obviously I prepared a risk assessment for the activity, and I called the local community police service who simply asked if they could set up a stall next to us! (but didn’t) And so for 6 hours over the last two weekends myself and the team have splashed liquid nitrogen around and created astonishment on the streets of Teddington. I find it reassuring that in all that time not one person approached us and asked us if we had permission to be there.

And finally, aside from the coldness, I found it really heartening just to meet my neighbours in Teddington and listen to them describe their lives and interests. Exposing oneself to the normality of real people is reassuring. Many people going about their business on a Saturday morning are busy and don’t want to be distracted by nonsense such as we were purveying. However I find it striking that several people responded to the question “Would you like to see something amazing?” with the simple answer: “No!”. Oh Well.

If I ruled the world…

February 7, 2010
How the Cupola will look on the ISS once installed.

How the Cupola will look on the ISS once installed.

If I ruled the world… then clearly something would have gone seriously wrong somewhere. But assuming that I did rule the world – having presumably usurped power by threatening to rain terror of some unspecified kind from satellites launched from my secret hollowed-out volcanic base – then I would have a space station with a cupola like the one they are just about to install on the International Space Station. I can think of no better way to pass the time than to gaze in awe at the Earth below me while listening to music. In general I think manned space flight is a waste of time and money, but if I ruled the world…

Climate Change Scepticism

February 7, 2010
Nearly meaningless BBC graphic about climate change

Nearly meaningless BBC graphic about climate change

The BBC report that climate change scepticism is on the rise. Why do people get all tribal about this? I guess it is to do with the way the issue is reported and the identification of a tribe of climate change ‘believers’. This is not an issue about belief. By the BBC’s inane standards I would myself count as a climate change sceptic, and yet I think action on this issue is urgent.

One question gives an impression of the way the BBC would like to place opinions into ‘boxes’ that create ‘a story’. People were asked ‘Which of the following statements is closest to your view?’

  • Climate change is happening and is now largely established as man-made.
  • Climate change is happening but not yet proven to be largely man-made.
  • Climate change is happening but it is environmentalist propaganda that it is man-made.
  • Climate change is not happening.

Well personally I wouldn’t sign up to any of these statements. My statement is a bit longer, but would be something like:

  • Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are rising and this is indisputably caused by humans. Our best estimate of the effect of this is that this will cause the Earth’s Climate to change. Climate observations are consistent with the idea that we are committing ourselves to significant future climate change and it would be prudent to reduce carbon dioxide emissions on the basis that when the data is unequivocal, it will probably be too late.

Is that really too complicated for people to understand?

Inane BBC Question

Inane BBC Question

GCSE Standards: I begin to learn

February 2, 2010
Exam Hall

Exam Hall

Having shouted from the rooftops about GCSE standards I thought I should learn more about them. So this evening I went to the Edexcel Web Site, clicked around and downloaded a couple of papers. Specifically I downloaded:

  • Edexcel GCSE Physics P3 Ref 5049/01 from 11 June 2008
  • London Examinations GCE ‘O’ Level Ref 7540/01 from 25 January 2007

Educationalists could probably describe the differences between the papers more succinctly but I will have a go. I don’t have the right to reproduce the questions, but  here are my impressions

  • The questions each last for a nominal 6.8 minutes, but the O level has 11 questions and the GCSE has 9
  • The GCSE paper has a formula sheet for even the most basic formulae e.g. frequency = 1 /period. The O level paper has no formula sheet. Calculators are allowed in both exams.
  • The O level paper questions are abstract and numerical. The student has to be familiar with more theory than for the GCSE paper so as to recognise the relevant theory in an unfamiliar – and often abstract – context.
  • One GCSE Question shows a diagram of a cathode ray tube and the student is asked to label the cathode (1 mark) and anode (1 mark). There are then 4 multiple choice questions:
    • The electron beam is produced by the the heated (a) cathode (b) anode (c) screen
    • The inside of the tube contains (a) air (b) a gas (c) a vacuum
    • When electrons hit the screen (a) light waves (b) microwaves (c) radio waves are produced
    • When the heater current is increased the number of electrons produced will (a) decrease (b) increase (c) stay the same
  • This question has no numerical component; students can guess from a choice of just three answers,in general one of which is pretty obviously wrong; the third question is wrong because although it seeks the answer (a) the correct answer is actually (a) (b) and (c).
  • There is no direct equivalent O level question. But one related question involves the student placing Radio waves, X-rays, Infra Red, A missing component, Visible light, microwaves, gamma rays in the correct of wavelength and identifying the missing component – ultra violet light I think. The speed of light in a vacuum is then given and the students asked
    • State one other property common to all electromagnetic waves ( I think they are seeking the fact that they are transverse waves, or that they can be polarised)
    • They are the asked to calculate the frequency of radio waves with a wavelength of 2 x 10^3 metres. They need to remember velocity = frequency x wavelength and do a sum involving exponents

In the  GCSE question there is no place for the student who has the numerical ability – an ability which is key to all practicing physicists – to demonstrate their insight and skill. In contrast the O level actually tests abilities and knowledge that, frankly, I use every day in my work.

This comparison has not been exhaustive, and the GCSE paper I looked at was not without merit. But its questions were vague and qualitative in comparison with the straightforward simplicity of the O level questions. The O level was a real test of physics, while the GCSE physics tested only a basic level of comprehension and a little general scientific knowledge. Based on this – admittedly limited – investigation, I feel that my concerns are justified. These exams don’t really examine the ability to do physics at all.

Are Mobile Phones Safe?

February 1, 2010

>> go to webcast

Just to say that I gave a talk about Mobile Phone Safety the other day and it is now available on IET TV. Click here to go straight to the talk’s home page. If you like the talk, please spread the word to your friends.


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