Evie Prichard: The new GCSE has got me excited by science

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The Independent Online

When was the last time you dozed off in a science lesson? Was it the last time you were in a science lesson? If you had asked me that at the end of last year, the answer would have been a definite "yes". But this year, the first of my GCSE course, I have found no use for the scraps of paper with ready-drawn noughts and crosses grids that were my lifeline. This year, I have seriously entertained the idea of an AS-level in one of the sciences.

My sudden conversion is due to one thing: the 21st-century science course. This is a new GCSE course that aims to teach teenagers not only the practice of science, but also its implications in the real world. The curriculum includes plenty of space for debates and encourages pupils to form their own opinions on contentious issues. The topics covered are often ones that are debated in the media. This catches pupils' interest more, and helps them to understand more fully what they hear on the news.

I find this fascinating. It means that I can apply the knowledge I gain in the classroom to everyday life, and can talk knowledgeably to adults about the ethical problems caused by current science. I already had views on abortion and other biological questions, but now I understand more complicated issues, such as PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis). The course has forced us to think about the effects scientific advances could have, and to make up our own minds on when and whether they should be allowed.

The GCSE has been criticised for being "more suitable for the pub than the schoolroom", and having a "back-to-front approach" to scientific education because of its media-focused perspective. Scientists fear that the GCSE will not encourage young people to go on to further qualifications, and that it will leave those students who do unprepared for science A-levels and university courses. It has even been suggested that the new GCSE could cause Britain to lose out to developing countries in research and development.

But the course does not ignore pure science: we still learn a lot of physics, chemistry and biology. What puzzles me about all these claims is the supposition that a scientist's GCSE will affect their thinking later on in their career.

I have always hated the way science in school is brought down "to our level". In year 7, a friend told me about the possible fourth state of matter: plasma. I was outraged that nobody had bothered to tell me about it before. Why would teachers drum it into our heads that there are three states of matter when they themselves are not sure?

Apparently, the first thing you are taught if you study physics at university is to forget everything you already know. The science we learn at the moment is so overly simplified that it just gets in the way of the truth.

If the 21st-century science course is useless to those carrying on with science, how much does this really matter? Those who choose to become scientists will have to earn so many other qualifications that it is unlikely that a slightly less comprehensive GCSE will hinder them much. The vast majority of those taking this exam will not study science at university, and will not need much scientific knowledge in later life. This GCSE will be immeasurably more useful for these people than the old one.

I don't suppose I will ever need to know the chemical equation for photosynthesis when I am older, but an understanding of global warming will come in very handy. Equally, knowing which particular enzymes break down which food groups will be of little good, while knowledge of genetic testing will mean I can have an informed view on an important issue. A GCSE in science is obligatory, so isn't it discrimination to aim it only at the minority who will follow through with it?

Anyway, more of us may now be encouraged to take sciences to AS- or A-level. Learning for this GCSE is the only time I have found myself engrossed in science, and the first time I have wondered whether a scientist's life is truly as dry as I had imagined.

If it weren't for this new course, I would still be tuning out in lessons and counting down the days until I could give it up. Unlike most of its critics, I have experienced the GCSE first-hand. I can say, for certain, that if anything is going to inspire more teenagers to begin a career in science, it is this.

The writer, aged 15, is in year 10 at St Paul's Girls' School in London

education@independent.co.uk

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