Life Sciences Research for Lifelong Health

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Schools' Day 25: Changes in science education

In response to this year being the 25th Annual Schools' Day at the Institute, our Public Engagement and Knowledge Exchange Manager, Hayley, explores the changes in science education over the last 25 years.

As you might have guessed from my previous blog post Science education is a topic close to my heart. And I’ve used my connections from my time as a teacher to help track down some of the major changes in UK education that have taken place over the last 25 years.

One of the most consistent truths of science education in the UK is our belief that it is vital for everyone to learn. Science has been a compulsory part of education for all children since the inception of the National Curriculum in 1988. Even with the creation of Academies in 2000 – one of the more radical recent changes to the UK school system – Science, along with English and Maths are still legally compulsory. So, whilst schools themselves have been through significant changes and, whilst the science being taught has advanced to reflect our latest understanding, its value and importance in our society remains unchanged.

This post is a celebration of all that is wonderful about science education but I would be doing my friends and former colleagues a disservice not to also acknowledge the challenges they are facing in their profession and the impacts the system is having on our children. I know a lot of excellent and very passionate teachers, so it was a little worrying – if not entirely surprising – to find that most have overwhelmingly negative feelings about the direction of change in education. On the whole, teachers and students alike are under more pressure to achieve outstanding results with progressively smaller budgets and fewer resources.

Since the start of Schools’ Day, there have been 13 MPs in the role of Secretary of State for Education (or equivalent) under the five different Prime Ministers (bonus points if you can name them all). As a consequence the UK education system, and in particular the English education system, has been changed (messed with, if you prefer) considerably. GCSEs have been overhauled twice and recently there have even been calls to scrap this qualification altogether. National exams at Key Stage three were scrapped and we’ve tried several different ways to compare attainment, assess teaching and quantify learning in our schools.

One thing that has not changed though is the dedication and enthusiasm of teachers in their classrooms every day across the country. I experienced that enthusiasm and determination first-hand and we see it in every school, teacher and student we work with here at the Institute. Teachers love teaching and we love learning new things to share with our students. For me, the Institute’s commitment to supporting both students and teachers is one of the most exciting things about working here.

The students that walked through our doors in 1995, according the National Curriculum, needed an understanding of fundamental genetics, they were expected to know terms like gene, chromosome, mutation and allele. They were also expected to understand the basic principles of cloning and genetic engineering. Those students embarking on the first Schools' Day projects at the Institute could not possibly have known that twelve months later, headlines would be full of news that the first mammal, Dolly the Sheep, had been cloned at the Roslin Institute in Midlothian.

Students visiting us now live in a world where cloning is not only widespread but has become so commonplace that, in some parts of the world, it has been commercialised so people can clone their beloved pets as well as being used to clone livestock in an attempt to increase efficiency of food production.

This year’s students will also have been born into a world that had just completed the human genome. The initial draft was revealed 18 years ago in 2001, with the finished version appearing in 2004. Whilst the first human genome took over a decade and billions of dollars to construct, the same feat is possible today in a matter of days and for just a few thousand dollars. And with tools like the MinION, it’s probably only a matter of time before we’ll be sequencing genomes in the classroom. Increasingly, as technologies like this become widely available, and their impacts on everyday life become more tangible, today’s students need to be equipped not just to understand this science but also to debate the ethics and impacts of such technologies.

Advancement in science and technology are also changing how we’re teaching lessons in schools. I remember the excitement of sitting in lessons when the huge cathode ray tube television, complete with VCR video player, was wheeled in on a trolley and positioned ready to play an appropriate documentary – on VHS of course. Since then classrooms have changed dramatically, students have access to all of the knowledge of mankind at their fingertips through phone and tablet devices. Teachers can use interactive whiteboards to bring presentations to life as well as countless apps to help with studying and revision. Computer programs offer teachers the opportunity to run molecular biology practical activities such as cloning and gel electrophoresis in their lessons. And, whilst Schools’ Day has always been a forerunner for bringing science and schools together, there are now many more excellent engagement events run by Universities and Research Institutes that help to give context to lessons and further inspire today’s students.

The Babraham Institute has loved the last twenty five years of welcoming schools into our labs, sharing the enthusiasm of our researchers and engaging with students. We’re looking forward to meeting you this year and we’re excited to see what the next twenty five years will bring.

Posted

18 February, 2019

By Hayley McCulloch