Things are going to change around here!

Guest post by Humphrey Jones 

“Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure science” – Edwin Hubble

I’m frequently asked, by my friends or my students, if I ever get sick of teaching the same old stuff year after year. Of course I tell them no – every class is different, every student is different – the usual clichéd answer. However, I’m probably not being completely honest with them.

I confess – I am complete science geek! I am genuinely captivated by science and admire those working at the coalface. As a teacher, I sometimes feel detached from the scientific world and try frequently to convince myself that I too am a scientist!

As a science teacher, I feel it’s my duty to take an active interest in “the frontier of science”. I thoroughly enjoy reading science news, blogs and journals, listening to science podcasts, keeping up with science events and I follow a plethora of science folk on the twitter-machine. Keeping up to date on the world of science is a time-consuming process, but I benefit enormously from the experience and I hope my students do too.

However, in taking an active interest in current research and emerging technologies, my frustration with the seemingly unchanging Irish science curricula escalates. Sadly, the pace of scientific advancement seems to go unnoticed in the Department of Education & Skills (DES) and the National Council for Curriculum & Assessment. The last time the NCCA released a new science syllabus was nine years ago – a dull, lifeless Junior Certificate science curriculum intent on removing all wonder from science before students reach fifteen (and sadly that is what it is most successful at). The current Leaving Certificate biology syllabus is eleven years old and physics and chemistry are both thirteen years old. Oh, and the agricultural science curriculum is nearing its fiftieth birthday!

The NCCA have just completed a review of new draft syllabi for biology, physics and chemistry, but they still rely heavily on “old science” and will no doubt encourage the State Examinations Commission (SEC) to create meaningless assessment procedures that reward recall rather than logic.

Those new syllabi will probably not be introduced until September 2014, almost four years after they were first conceived. Thankfully though, science won’t have progressed much in those four years! (#kidding)

Okay, I’ll stop ranting for a few paragraphs and talk about the research areas that currently stir my interest in the world of science.

Éilis McGrath’s Science +1 post on Friday about nanotechnology, the small science with a big impact, highlighted how this rapidly advancing field of research is impacting our everyday lives. The fields of medicine, electronics, pharmaceuticals & diagnostics will change before our eyes in the next decade. It is mind boggling stuff and I am fascinated by the science and the breadth of applications. Kids love the concept too – they relate to the technology and engage in the science. They ask questions and theorise about future applications. That’s science! Yet, there is no mention of the world “nano” in any current or newly drafted science curriculum inIreland.

There is also no mention of space or astronomy in any junior or senior cycle curriculum, yet most young kids are fascinated by it and probably have a poster of the space shuttle, Jupiter or the International Space Station on their bedroom wall! Kids and adults alike love space and space exploration – it’s the cutting edge of science! Astronomy is undergoing a dramatic surge in popularity, helped in no small part by Prof. Brian Cox’s exploration of the ‘Wonders of the Universe’ and his floppy hair. Astronomy, for me, is a “gateway science” – it engages young minds and gets them asking questions about physics, the human body or the origin of life. That is the purpose of science education, not to pass exams or to remember that V = R x I.

The newly emerging science on “metamaterials” fascinates me. These extraordinary materials behave differently from compounds found in nature. While natural substances (elements and compounds) gain their properties from the atoms that make them up, the properties of metamaterials are subject to which elements they are made from and, more importantly, how those elements are arranged. The arrangement of the elements can give these artificially produced materials wondrous properties – which include invisibility to some wavelengths of light.

Metamaterial are made up of tiny repeating building blocks called “artificial molecules”. These structures usually consist of a number of elements arranged in one, two or three dimensions. They are normally produced on a silicon bed, with lattices of various metals interwoven. It is their geometric shape which gives these magic artificial materials their wondrous properties. By arranging the elements in certain ways scientists have been able to create materials that can manipulate light’s many properties. Some have what is known as a negative refractive index, meaning they bend light rays in a different direction to normal materials. In theory this could make some metamaterials invisible, at least to some wavelengths of light, leading to the development of new cloaking devices and other applications.

Metamaterials have revealed a new way of looking at matter, light and other areas of our science curricula yet no way of introducing the term is made in the new senior science syllabi.

The work of CERN physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and other particle accelerators, alters our understanding of the quantum world almost on a daily basis. It’s in the news regularly and young people are genuinely interested in the science and the possible future applications of the technologies. I’m not from a physics background, and barely understand the science if I’m being honest, but I love reading about their latest research, the hunt for the Higgs or the potential of antimatter for energy production. I see the work at the LHC as a means of engaging young minds in the scientific process but I am perplexed by particle physics omission from current or newly drafted syllabi. The LHC is to get a mention in the new physics syllabus, but that’s it!

Okay, so what’s my point?

What I would like to see is a new way of drafting science curricula in the future. There is no conceivable reason why it should take four years from drafting a syllabus to its introduction. Reviewing what and how we teach science every ten years is also unforgivable – it’s science for flip sake, it changes constantly by its very nature – we need to be reviewing our curricula every year!

This would allow us add or subtract elements of our curricula from year to year, to develop modules on new and emerging sciences like metamaterials or nanoscience, to introduce options like astronomy, to explore quantum physics in more detail or look at new advances in medicine or genetics. Our science curricula need to be adaptive, not stale, and reflect what is happening in the world of science right now.

You’re mad I hear you say! I disagree. I’ve witnessed firsthand researchers at “the frontier of science” and teachers working together to create resources that introduce students to the wonderful world of nanoscience.

Éilis McGrath, and her colleagues in CRANN, last year developed a wonderful resource for science teachers – a comprehensive, accessible, relevant nanoscience teaching pack and DVD (Nano In My Life) designed specifically for Transition Year. It’s a truly excellent resource, which helps to bring the world of nanoscience in to the school laboratory. CRANN worked with science teachers to make sure the learning objectives were attainable and the content relevant. It’s a great example of how scientists and teachers can work together to bring new exciting fields of science in to the curriculum, quickly and effectively. Why couldn’t a nanoscience module be developed for Leaving Certificate physics, chemistry or biology course in the same way? Why couldn’t the model CRANN have developed be emulated across a range of fields, to develop similar modules for astronomy, quantum physics, applied genetics, GMO’s or computer programming which could be incorporated in to the senior and junior science curricula?

The material can be produced and presented online, with all schools in the republic soon to have super fast 100Mb broadband and many opting for tablets instead of textbooks. It could be easily edited from year to year with no need for costly paper textbooks. The assessment of the modules could be dramatically altered too, with the use of ICT.

Such a change would require a major shift in our approach to curriculum development, and in its assessment, but I strongly feel that our current approach to science education is outdated, based on a system reliant on examinations and is failing our young people. Things are going to change around here. We need it too!

Humphrey Jones is a science teacher in St. Columba’s College, Dublin. He blogs at www.frogblog.ie, on science and science education, and is frequently seen eating chocolate and Walkers Sensations crisps. Follow Humphrey on Twitter: @TheFrogBlog for sciencey tweets or @HumphreyJones for education and random chocolate induced rubbish.

Other posts in this series: