Study the appliance of science

New courses are rooted in the real world, which makes scientists extremely employable, says Caitlin Davies
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The Independent Online

If you thought science was too hard, too boring and wouldn't get you a good job, think again. University science courses are becoming easier to get onto, broader and more imaginative, and lead to many a high-flying career.

If you thought science was too hard, too boring and wouldn't get you a good job, think again. University science courses are becoming easier to get onto, broader and more imaginative, and lead to many a high-flying career.

Not only do science students apparently live longer (according to recent research published by the Royal Society of Medicine), but anyone entering the field at university is spoilt for choice. Some chemistry and physics departments may be closing their doors, but innovative courses, particularly at newer universities, are trying hard to attract more students.

There are now more than 4,000 science courses listed by UCAS for 2003, far more than for the humanities. New and popular areas include health science, sports science, environmental and forensic science.

"Today science is broader, but it's still in-depth," says Dr Jane Varey, senior lecturer in food science and nutrition at Northumbria University. "Students are more interested in the science behind everyday life. Widening participation means we are offering the degrees that students are actually asking for. Pure scientists might have a problem with this, but the rest of us think, well, the students are enjoying it, they are still learning as much science, and they get jobs."

Northumbria still offers applied biology and chemistry, but its health and food sciences are proving popular. With the latter, students study topics such as food analysis, marketing and safety, with a six-week placement in the second year. The university promises "excellent career prospects" - in the food industry, for example.

Sport science is another big new area, with 1,180 courses nationwide covering topics such as human anatomy, psychology and nutrition. There are also courses in exercise science, coaching science, even fitness science (University of Greenwich) and water sport science (University of Portsmouth).

One reason for this trend is the growing interest in alternative therapies such as massage; another is because, once again, there are plenty of job opportunities.

Also, it's easy to combine sport science with other subjects. At Roehampton, University of Surrey, students can study the science of sport and exercise with anything from art history to business studies, children's literature to criminology. Kent University offers the chance to combine sports and coaching studies with accounting, complementary therapy, telecommunications and even Japanese.

While some may dismiss the new courses as gimmicky, others say they are about what students want to learn.

Another growing area is computer science, with literally thousands of courses available. Then there's environmental science (968 courses), as well as the sciences of conservation, atmosphere, fire, rural environment and the ocean. Oxford Brookes offers scores of environmental science courses, which can be combined with a language, law or music.

An intriguing element of the newer sciences is forensics (139 courses), which these days can be combined with just about anything. There's chemistry and forensic science, and the more obvious link between forensic science, crime and justice. But have a look at Anglia Polytechnic University and the universities of Bradford and Central Lancashire and you'll find forensic science combined with public relations, film or tourism studies.

In the past, students have needed a medical degree to study forensics with a firm chemistry or physics background, but now it's being offered at the undergraduate level and students are queuing up.

Its popularity is thanks in part to the explosion in DNA knowledge which is now being put to practical use. But it's probably also due to the influence of TV shows - whether fictional murder mysteries or real crime shows. First-year students at Nottingham Trent University learn how to interpret information from the scene of a crime, along with studying fingerprinting, fibre analysis and ballistics. But because the study of how people die is fascinating, it's a very competitive field, warns Rebecca Bradbury, university network coordinator at the Institute of Biology.

Many of the more popular new courses are biology-based, so what about chemistry and physics? As with biology, there are many more sorts of chemistries now available, such as computing chemistry, colour chemistry (applying chemistry principles to the study of colour) and marine chemistry, which may be combined with subjects such as business or language.

As for physics, very few of the former polytechnics offer it at all any more. Physics departments may be surviving only because they are heavily subsidised, with university chancellors able to "pull the plug" at any time, says Professor Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics.

Main says the market is driven from below - in other words, if there's no demand from students for science courses, then there won't be any on offer. The result is "physics deserts" in large parts of the UK.

But newer areas such as astrophysics are seen as more exciting. And while science is still regarded as harder than other subjects, universities such as Central Lancashire offer broader physics degrees that don't require maths and physics A-levels.

"You are very, very employable with physics," stresses Professor Main. "But kids don't know this." Possible jobs include engineering and finance.

While interdisciplinary courses appear to be the face of scientific future, as yet only Leeds University offers a foundation degree in interdisciplinary science. Finally, how about this for a unique course: the degree in science fiction offered by the University of Glamorgan.


South-Londoner Claire Jardine, 20, has just finished the second year of a BSc in zoology at the University of Wales, Bangor

I decided to do this degree because I love working with animals. I grew up with five cats, two fish, seven hamsters and three rabbits and I couldn't imagine not having animals around. As a teenager I had part-time jobs in animal care, and I wanted to do a degree in veterinary science to become a vet. But my A-level grades were pretty bad (I was ill at the time) so I opted for the closest subject I could find: zoology.

This is an animal study course with 12 modules a year. It's designed to give you a sound background in general biology with an emphasis on zoology.

At the moment I'm enjoying it a lot, most of the modules are things I'm interested in, and as you go further into the degree you get more choice as to what you want to specialise in.

When I've finished my BSc, I hope to do a Masters in marine mammal science. I want to go into research involving the intelligence and communication abilities of dolphins and whales.

Unfortunately I haven't met any whales or dolphins yet (except in zoos), so my interest is mostly textbook based, but I can only imagine that when I meet the real thing I'll be even more captivated.

I'd certainly encourage others to embark on a science-based degree, it gives you a lot of "life-skills" like attention to detail and a hard work ethic.