Sixth-formers are to grapple with ethical dilemmas and learn about the lives of great scientists in a new exam aimed at showing the "human face" of science.
In the first AS-level course in the history, philosophy and ethics of science, students will learn about important episodes from the history of science, famous scientists and the human dramas and disputes which surrounded their theories.
Students will also begin debating ethical questions of science and technology such as cloning, transplantation and animal experimentation when the course is piloted by Edexcel, England's second largest exam board, in September.
Controversially, the course will be the first AS-level course to be examined by coursework alone. Students will have to complete an 8,000-word research project and give a 10-minute presentation in class.
If the course, Perspectives on Science, proves successful, it could be offered in all schools from 2006. It is designed to broaden the studies of both science and arts students and does not require specialist science staff to teach it. A spokeswoman for Edexcel said: "This new AS-level is unique and we are very excited by how it is developing."
Development of the course comes amid concerns that school science is now so dull and outdated that many young people are being put off the subject for life and are leaving school scientifically illiterate.
Last year The Independent revealed that the Government had commissioned a review of GCSE science, introducing lessons in "science for citizens" to cut the time spent on traditional physics, chemistry and biology in favour of topics such as cloning, genetically modified food and diet.
Science lessons are compulsory for pupils aged five to 16 under the national curriculum and most teenagers take double science GCSE. But the number of sixth-formers taking A-level sciences has plummeted over the past decade.
In 1992, physics A-level was taken by 41,301 students; this summer it was 30,583, a decline of 26 per cent. In chemistry, entries have fallen by 15 per cent in 10 years, to 36,110. Only biology has seen an increase.
The shortage of science teachers is also a problem. Official figures from the Government's staffing review of secondary schools show that science is being taught by an ageing workforce. The percentage of chemistry teachers over 50 has risen from 23 per cent to 35 per cent since 1996. More than a third of physics teachers are now over 50.
The number of chemistry lessons taught by a teacher without a subject qualification has risen from 3 per cent to 10 per cent in the same period; in physics the number has almost doubled, to 11 per cent.
The development of the course is being co-ordinated by Dr John Taylor, the head of physics at Rugby School. Dr Taylor said the course was "mind-stretchingly exciting" and would be "vital to the creation of a generation of scientifically literate young people". He said: "Traditional courses in the history and philosophy of science have tended to introduce the subject in an abstract manner. Our approach has been to explore topics which will be familiar to students from their GCSE studies, and to allow philosophical and historical questions to emerge from these contexts."
Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools who is conducting the independent inquiry into the future of education for 14- to 19-year-olds, and who started his career as a science teacher, believes the course will fit well with the recommendations of his inquiry, which are due to be published next month.
"I like the course and the content," he said. "It could be challenging scientifically as well as developing skills more generally. In relation to the future of 14-19, I can see the approach having potential to meet some of the demands likely to be proposed."
What they will learn: controversial episodes in scientific endeavour
Origin of the species: Charles Darwin, friends and enemies
The theory of evolution expounded by Darwin is still controversial. It has been banned in some US schools and a row erupted over the teaching of creationism - that God created the world in seven days - at Emmanuel College in Gateshead.
The structure of DNA - Crick, Watson, Franklin, Wilkins
Controversy lingers about who was responsible for discovering the double helix structure of DNA. Significant facts about DNA's structure, discovered by Franklin, were given to Watson and Crick without her knowledge. In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins received a Nobel prize. Franklin was not overlooked. She died in 1958, and the Nobel is not awarded posthumously.
Cloning - From the creation of Dolly the sheep to human cloning
Is human cloning "playing with nature?" If so, how does that compare with other reproductive technologies such as IVF?
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