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Taking science education across the world

Our future depends on exploring all the frontiers of science, on innovative technologies based on these explorations and on the development of scientific literacy in all peoples through science education.

Curriculum notes for teachers and families

This is an expansion of part of my workshop and curriculum theatre presentations at the Education Show at the NEC Birmingham in March 2014. You may find some useful information when panning a science curriculum for school, home learning or a science club.

1. Scientific literacy

Every science curriculum must have the aim of helping the students become adults who are scientifically literate. This means that they understand the way that scientists work. have a wide general knowledge of the areas of science. are able to understand a scientific topic in the media in adult life and use it as a basis for making rational decisions about an issue related to the uses and implications of science.

A little more on Scientific literacy

Scientific literacy shows itself in the way a person uses their knowledge of science facts and processes to understand items in the news with a scientific basis such as climate change and health issues and to be able evaluate the items, react thoughtfully and draw conclusions from them. Using scientific literacy skills enables a person to make informed judgments on these issues and use them when taking part in local or national decisions which may affect society or the environment.

A simple way of thinking about looking for signs of scientific literacy is to see if the child can see how the accumulated data from large numbers of scientific enquiries (using the scientific method) leads to the developments of theories and laws.

Laws are the most secure item of knowledge such as the laws of gravity that have stood the test of time against enquiries which might have disproved them.

Theories are less secure but often held in the same regard as laws. The theory of relativity and the theory of evolution are examples or major theories but other theories are built up from the results of a series of more recent enquiries which some skeptical scientists still challenge. The theory of climate change is an example.

If a theory is found by subsequent enquiries to be in secure it is rejected and replaced with another. It is at this level of recent enquiries producing theories on which people are encouraged to act such as climate change or health issues that scientific literacy in the population is important.
If research sweeps away a theory and replaces it with another a paradigm shift is said to take place. A paradigm is a way in which people (including scientists) think about something or the way it happens. From history one of the greatest paradigm shifts was from thinking about the Earth as the centre of the universe with everything in space (including the Sun) moving round it to the Earth moving around the Sun with other objects in the Solar System. There could be paradigm shifts in our children’s lifetime. Perhaps one might be our concept of life (based obviously on our observations on Earth) when further explorations of the Solar system and exo planets around other stars are made.

2. The signs of a scientist

Although the majority of the students probably will not follow a career in science they will need to be trained in the scientific method to understand how discoveries are made and how the reliability of the data is assessed. This will give them insight into science-based issues presented in the media on which they must make rational decisions about their future. With this in mind the concept of the ‘Signs of a scientist’ may be useful in curriculum planning to make every one in school a ‘junior scientist’. The following is based on ideas by Carl Sagan the cosmologist and filled out by me to apply to any science curriculum.

Scientists are observant, curious, imaginative and creative. The children enter primary school displaying these attributes and the curriculum must foster their continued development.
Scientists are disciplined in their work. They follow the scientific method in their work and the curriculum must introduce the students to this and make them proficient in its stages.

Scientists can analyse the data they collect and the data provided by others. The curriculum must be designed to provide many opportunities to carry out scientific enquiries. By becoming familiar with investigative processes and their own data collection the skill of analysis will develop. There must be a focus on the purpose of the investigation and how the data relates to the purpose. Once they are competent in analyzing their own data they could examine the data of others and analyse it.
Scientists can construct rational explanations from their data. Students can build up this skill by explaining what the data means.

Scientists draw conclusions. By considering the purpose of the investigation and the explanation of the data they can draw a conclusion about their findings and the suitability of the investigative procedure to the task.

Scientists are skeptical of their work and that of others. Students may develop this skill through the study of anomalous results which they may record in their own investigations or presented in the investigations of others. They should aim to reduce their skepticism by the repeating of investigations a number of times they think appropriate.

3. The types of Scientific Enquiry

In the past great emphasis has been placed on fair testing which may have given the impression that this was the only way to make a scientific enquiry. Today five lines of scientific enquiry are to be built into the curriculum. All have been used before but their importance as not usually been recognized as equal to that of fair testing.

Grouping and classifying.

At the beginning of any scientific study the items to be investigated must be identified. This is done by grouping and classifying. Here are some examples of this line of enquiry: dividing up materials on their properties, plants and animals on their structures. Rocks on their appearance and other properties, forces into pushes and pulls, objects into luminous (light sources) and non luminous objects, organs of the body into systems. Once the items to be investigated have been identified the student can then move onto other lines of enquiry.

Observations over time.

In this there is no comparison to be made just simple observation and recording over a period of time from minutes to up to a year or more. Here are some examples of this line of enquiry: the drying up of a puddle, the changes in the features of the weather (temperature, wind speed, wind direction, rainfall), growth of a plant or animal, changes in the setting of milk plastic.

Comparative and fair test.

This features a number of technical terms which can be difficult to understand when they are first met. These terms are factors, variables and controlled experiments. The stages in a fair test show how these terms relate to each other but if the explanation sounds to complicated go straight to the example and perhaps come back them later

Stages in fair testing

1 Identifying all the factors that could affect the change you are to observe. These factors and the change are also known as variables.

2 Constructing a controlled experiment in which all the factors except one are controlled (kept the same) while one factor is varied and the change is observed and recorded over time.
The controlled factors are known as controlled variables, the factor that is varied is called the independent variable and the change that takes place due to it is called the dependent variable.
Example of fair testing

A study of plant growth provides an example. Plant growth can be affected by temperature, nature of the soil, amount of water. To investigate the effect of temperature on plant growth, two sets of germinated seeds are set up in the same kind of soil and are given the same amount of water (the controlled variables are then taken care of). One pot is placed in a cool place and the other in a warm place (Temperature the independent variable is being investigated), the growth of the seedlings is measured every day (the dependent variable).

When graphs are drawn the independent variable is on the horizontal x axis and the dependent variable is on the vertical y axis.

Pattern seeking.

This line of enquiry involves comparing one set of observations with another to see if there is a relationship between them. It could be an investigation into leg length and stride length, the amount of exercise and pulse rate, size of parachute and speed of descent, the temperature and wind direction, the temperature/cloud cover. The length of stem and the length of the length of leaves.
Research using secondary sources.

While science enquires are a form of research the term researching here refers to using secondary sources to find answers. There are four stages in this process.

1. Planning. This involves selecting an area to research. This may be from a general interest or to support findings from more practical enquiries. In either case the planning needs to begin by asking question to focus the direction of the research. For example What kind of bird is that? Why do moving objects slow down when you stop pushing them?

2 Finding resources. These can be books or internet sites. Several should be used to confirm the facts. For example a few bird books could be examined to compare the illustrations and the habitat or migration movements of the bird. The phonetic descriptions of its calls in the book can be compared with bird calls at sites on the internet.

3 Analysing the results of research. This involves comparing the pieces of information that have been collected and arranging them in an order which helps to explain the questions that were originally set.

4. Reporting. In this stage the results are communicated to others. It provides a good opportunity to make sure that the meanings of scientific words are understood, to examine the children’s written or drawing skills and if they are making a presentation their speaking skills.

The five lines of enquiry are features of the 2014 science curriculum in the England. There is another line of enquiry in other curricula which involves the use of models.


Modeling is used by scientists to investigate structures and processes which are too difficult to access. They are built up from observations of a structure or event or both and can be used to predict future observations. For example observations on the planets provides data which can be used to make a model such as an orrery and this can be used to predict future movements of the planets. Observations on the action of meteors an on the surface of the moon can be used to make a model of how impact crater are formed by dropping small pebbles into flour.

Using a combination of lines of enquiry.

Several lines of enquiry can be used in one scientific investigation. For example – A number of different soils could be grouped according to whether they were clay soils or sandy soils (identifying and classifying) They could then be compared to see how they drain a certain amount of water (fair testing) The results may show that the sandier the soil the more quickly it drains the water (pattern seeking).


A science curriculum identifies the signs of scientist in the students which it will foster and develop through making a wide range of scientific enquiries across the subjects of biology, chemistry and physics with the aim of producing scientifically literate citizens.

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