Open Eye: On course

The Pacific Rim economies and a new way of studying science
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The Independent Online
It holds the world's three largest economies and routinely attracts superlatives like 'dynamic', 'extraordinary' and 'miracle'. Its present traumas are having repercussions around the world. Now the Pacific region looks set to become a growth area for study by British students and academics. This year the Open University launched its first Pacific Studies course, encompassing the diverse region that runs from the west coast of North America to Australasia. Japan, China and the USA are the chief areas of focus, with South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and Australia also featured.

It's the first course of its kind in the UK, according to Richard Maidment, the professor of government and politics who has overseen its development. "It's a unique package - five TV programmes, five books, which are being published by Routledge, who are anticipating very significant external sales, plus video, audio-cassette and radio broadcasts. It brings together politics, economics, history and international relations, and also looks at the social and cultural dimensions."

Producing a course like this doesn't come cheap. The TV programmes were filmed on location all over the Pacific region. Eminent specialists from the region were employed to contribute significant mounts of course material. But, says Richard, the result is a course that "defines the territory in Asia Pacific studies". How about the current economic turmoil in the region? Doesn't that invalidate anything produced before the South Korean crash in late '97? Fortunately, for the academics, the timing of these events has allowed material on them to be incorporated into the course. More importantly, they were not entirely unanticipated, says Richard. "I'm not claiming anyone predicted the stock market crashes as they happened. But at no point did we believe that the rapid growth was going to continue indefinitely. Many of the course authors made the point that economic 'miracles' have happened before in other parts of the world, and these things always come to an end."

And some media commentators have been unduly pessimistic about the region's situation. "Areas that have had 25 to 30 years of growth and substantial achievement are not going to go completely backwards. "Indonesia undoubtedly has major problems - but not Singapore, Taiwan or Hong Kong. Even in South Korea they seem to be coping. Their growth rate has come down from seven or eight percent to three percent a year - but if the UK had a growth rate of three per cent, it would be thrilled.There is an element of 'how are the mighty fallen' - taking pleasure in another's downfall."

And there is a great deal more to the region than making money." It is an area of extraordinary interest and great diversity.

The Pacific Studies course, which is currently being studied by around 600 students, is formally launched at the Japanese Embassy in London this month. More details from the OU on 01908 653231.

Scientists and engineers will be in short supply in the Britain of the future, according to surveys that show too few people are opting to train in these areas to supply the projected needs for the new millennium. Science is seen as a 'difficult', abstract, not 'people-friendly'.

This was the challenge facing the creators of the Open University's new introductory science course, Discovering Science. Rethinking the ways of the past, they have taken a new approach to teaching the subject. But will it make science a more popular choice for students? Dr David Robinson, an OU biologist who helped create the course and is now involved in teaching it, is optimistic: "The barriers to studying science are in part due to the public understanding of science and what it is about. One of the aims of the course is to help students understand the science behind popular issues like global warming. "A common impression is that science is difficult. Some of the publicity surrounding scientific issues adds to the confusion- people hear one day a report that butter is bad for them, then next day another report that seems to say it's not. "Then there's the belief that science is responsible for a lot of the world's problems - such as environmental destruction. This is a due to a misunderstanding of what science is. "These are problems of the application of science, not science itself. It could equally be said that we have been alerted to these problems by the scientists who investigate and monitor them." In Discovering Science the old rigid divisions between physics, chemistry and biology, familiar to many of us from our schooldays, are thrown out in favour of a much more global approach. Starting with the big questions 'what is the universe?' 'what is life?' leads naturally into looking at the finer detail. This may come as a surprise to many students on the course whose previous experience of science will have been the opposite - starting with chemical reactions and working up. Gone too are those bare laboratory benches - instead eleven state-of-the-art CD ROMs provide the 'hands-on' experience. One CD ROM features the entire ecosystem of an oak woodland through which students can 'roam', collecting samples of plant and animal life. "It's exactly what students would be doing on a real field trip," says David. There are also 10 specially made TV programmes, six of which are currently being featured as BBC 2's Quantum Leaps series on Friday nights.(See listings) The decision to use multimedia - never before a compulsory component of the OU's science courses - wasn't taken without trepidation. "We were worried that compulsory computing might deter some students, particularly women," David said. "In fact enrolments are slightly up on the previous course - we have about 3,800 this year - and there are more women. The gender balance is almost 50:50. We don't know how to explain this, but it's a relief." Instruction in the necessary computing skills is provided as part of the course, and the OU also operates a computer loan scheme for students. Discovering Science is formally launched at the Royal Society on June 9 by Nobel Prize winner Sir Harry Kroto. Further details from the OU on 01908 653231.