National Science Week (and creationism?)
This week is National Science Week here in the UK. There doesn't seem to be a lot happening in my corner of the country, but today I did my bit. During last year's Science Week I attended the opening of the Earth sculpture which is part of the Spaced Out project, the world's largest scale model of the solar system. After the ceremony I got talking to a physics teacher at the school where the sculpture is located and offered to show them round if they wanted to bring some students out to the Observatory (as you do). Recently I had an email from this teacher asking if I could give a talk to some primary school children at his school during Science Week this year. So, me being me, I said yes.
It was actually quite scary as I've never really talked to primary school children without the use of the planetarium, I wasn't sure just how much detail I could go into before I lost them completely. An hour can seem like a very long time when you're trying to keep the attention of a room full of restless children. In the end it was three talks of an hour each, and it seemed to go really well. I basically gave them a tour of the Universe, starting from a satellite picture of the town and zooming all the way out to the Hubble Deep Field via the planets, other solar systems, the Milky Way and other galaxies, including a little demo of the scale of the solar system using a model of the Earth-Moon system which goes down well at Ask an Astronomer. We ended with the collision of Andromeda with the Milky Way, the Sun becoming a Red Giant and what might ultimately happen to the Universe. Now I think about it, that seems a lot to get through in an hour!
The first two groups were really well behaved. They had lots of really good questions and some of them knew an incredible amount already, but they were great. They always put up their hands before asking a question, and they had lots of them. Groups like that are a real pleasure to talk to (even though I still get pterodactyls, don't think I'll ever get over that). The last group were quite a contrast. They talked pretty much constantly, and several of them just made silly comments all the way through. Grrr. As I'm only just getting back to normal after the evil chest infection of the other week, I wasn't going to talk over them, so I just kept stopping. I figured if they didn't want to listen, I didn't want to waste my breath talking. Hey ho.
On the way back to the office I was talking to this teacher about school science and he told me something that I find very worrying. After all the controversy in America over the teaching of creationism in science lessons, it has apparently now made it into the new national curriculum for science here. Now, I'm all for encouraging students to debate issues like this, it's both an important issue and an essential skill to be able to investigate an issue and reach your own conclusion based on the evidence, but this one really belongs in religious studies, not in the science classroom. Had I not already been sitting down, I would have needed to.
After some digging, it seems that OCR are behind this. The new structure to their science GCSE course is called "Gateway Science" and seems to be encouraging the teaching of how the science process actually works, rather than just teaching facts (something I've been ranting about for a while, so this sounds like a good thing). The only reference I have found to creationism is on page 69 of this document which says:
Explain that the fossil record has been interpreted differently over time (e.g. creationist interpretation).
I'm not sure quite what to make of this. Different ideas should be mentioned in order to show that scientific theories evolve with new data, but should creationism really be used in this context?