Monday, 11 February 2013

Geology / Earth Science (delete where necessary)

In 2006, something dramatic happened in geoscience education in Western Australia. That year, the long standing (and mandatory) provision to teach Geology at Year 11/12 (equivalent to UK Key Stage 5; A-Level) was terminated. A subject which for years had struggled with falling numbers among students and schools seemed to have been finally put out of its misery.

“Interest and awareness of geology in high schools in WA - the world’s leading mining and exploration province, is at a low ebb with only five schools currently teaching the Geology Course” lamented Jim Ross, the Chair of Earth Science Western Australia (ESWA) (1,2). With its demise, Geology in WA was destined to have its key components buried within a new module: ‘Environmental Science’.

ESTWA - a consortium representing the University of Western Australia, Curtin University of Technology, CSIRO, the Geological Survey of WA and the WA Museum - took up the fight. Alarmed by the possibility of Geology slipping under the radar of school students, they campaigned to help redesign and write the curriculum for the new course and successfully lobbied to change its name. The resulting ‘Earth and Environmental Science’ now delivers 50/50 geoscience and environmental science content.

The effect of this new branding of Geology has been truly transformative. As the graphs below show, the transfer from the old Geology course to the new Earth and Environmental Science course in 2007 saw a huge boost in the number of schools and students having access to geoscience.

Figure 1: Plots showing the uptake of ‘Geology (green) and )’Earth & Environmental Science’ (Red) amongst students (left) and schools (right) in Western Australia.

What’s more, this increase has continued apace with a rising engagement of schools in ESWA’s geoscience outreach programmes, not just at lower Secondary level but also at Primary too. Such is the remarkable reversal in fortunes for geoscience in WA that many of Oz’s east coast states - equally afflicted by dwindling geoscience school numbers - are thinking seriously about going down the same rebranding route.

Figure 2: Plot showing increasing schools engagement with Earth Science Western Australia activities following the 2007 introduction of the Earth & Environmental Science course.

The Western Australian experience in recasting a faltering Geology in the guise of Earth and Environmental Science is instructive because here in the UK we are having our own difficulties with Geology in secondary school education. The situation is arguably most acute in Scotland, where low uptakes mean that the old Geology Higher course is on its way out (along with Managing Environmental Resources), both to be replaced by Environmental Science.Teachers protest that the low uptake is driven by the low numbers of teachers supporting the subject because no new teachers in Geology have been trained since 1985.  That has a knock-on effect because “...the perception of Geology as a low uptake subject means that Head Teachers identify it as a subject to cut in times of financial difficulty which further reduces pupil enrolment in Geology qualifications.” (3)

The concern amongst professional Earth scientists and Geology classroom practitioners north of the border is that any decline at secondary school level will quickly impact on the vitality of the university sector. “Uptake of university places in Geology, Earth sciences and Geosciences are related to the numbers enrolled in upper level qualifications in secondary school... Without Higher Geology, the numbers of Scottish pupils enrolling in undergraduate Geology or Earth science degree courses will drop, and the production of qualified Scottish geologists ready for careers in the biggest sector of the future Scottish economy will drop.” (3). In contrast to Western Australia, Scotland’s new Environmental Science A-level is taking shape with minimal geoscience input, suggesting that any tartan resurgence in Geology is some way off.

At first glance, the situation in England & Wales looks far rosier. GCSE, AS and A-level numbers are climbing, reversing what had previously been a long and steady decline. At Advanced level uptake in Geology is even outpacing its nemesis, Environmental Science.

But against a background of rising student interest in Geology in English and Welsh schools, some teachers are alarmed about a potential threat that might yet offset these gains. Ironically, that threat emerges from the very sector that is set to benefit from the hard-won successes in the classroom: the universities. That’s because many of the major geoscience departments in the UK are not exactly enthusiastic about A-level Geology as a core entry subject. According to the Russell Group, for example, the ‘essential subjects that secure entry to Geology/Earth Science as Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology; Geology languishes with Geography as one of two ‘useful’ subjects (4). Many of the 1994 group universities adopt a similar admissions stance. In the schools, the decision to exclude Geology from the top table of ‘facilitating’ subjects may already be having a detrimental effect. One teacher wrote to me warning of “...a considerable, and disturbing, amount of lack of confidence in our subject/discipline from both parents and students, as a result of reports in the media. The main concern is, their ambitions to study at a RG/1994 group university will be compromised by selecting geology as an A level.” 

It is easy to speculate as to why Geology might be viewed by admissions tutors as not being especially facilitating. After all, having a Geology A-level probably means coming in to geoscience with one less Science, which could limit students in some aspects of the sprawling, inter-connected multiverse of Earth system science. Also, an entry cohort with a mix of students with and without advanced level geoscience is tricky to cater for at the introductory level. Finally, there could be concerns either that the A-level syllabus might not be adequate preparation for the rapidly evolving and ever more specialised geoscience curriculum at university, or that out-of-date thinking among A-level teachers may end up instilling misconceptions that are hard to shift later on.

Whatever the issue, the relegation of Geology A Level to simply being ‘useful’ for pursuing a career in geoscience means that students and parents are likely to be confused as whether or not it is worthwhile selecting at all. And yet, currently, it is that A-level that is underpinning our rising Geology numbers. According to Chris King at Keele University’s Earth Science Education Unit (pers comm), the latest UCAS figures show that last year 43% of applicants to UK geology courses had A-level geology and 30% of applicants to all UK geoscience-related courses. Any appreciable switch away from Advanced Geology in secondary schools is likely to have an immediate knock-on effect on university numbers.

One of the reasons to think that a loss of confidence in A Level Geology will be transmitted into university admissions is that, as geoscience retreats into the shadows of our school curricula, we will rely increasingly on other subjects to turn on students to Geology. Indeed, a disparate Earth science content is already scattered across the other sciences and Geography. But the latest National Curriculum for Key Stage 4 (GCSE) Science hardly inspires confidence that it will be of much service to Geology (5). According to that document - released on the 7th February 2013 - the explicit Earth Science is as follows:
  • carbon dioxide and methane as greenhouse gases
  • carbon capture and storage
  • common pollutants and their sources
  • the Earth’s water resources
  • calcium carbonate as a raw material for the construction industry

Geological flotsam and jetsam wash up elsewhere in the new Science GSCE - such as the evidence for evolution from fossils in Biology and sound waves in rocks in Physics - but, by and large, GCSE Science is a geology-free zone. No plate tectonics, earthquakes and volcanoes; for that, sign up to Geography. The big picture story of our planet’s past and how it works today is entirely missing. Instead, it is with a modest smattering of Geology amongst neighbouring disciplines that we will increasingly rely on sell the glorious wonders of brand Geoscience. In a blog written a couple of years ago, Keele University geologist Ian Stimpson highlighted the nub of the problem with this reliance on teachers in other fields:

“The few bits of geology that are still taught in English schools are, in the main, now taught by chemistry teachers. I don’t want to disparage chemistry teachers but in general they don’t have the background knowledge in geology to allow them the confidence to teach the subject well. If the situations were reversed, and I had to teach chemistry, I’d give it my best shot but without that foundation in the subject I would struggle, and I certainly could not teach it with the enthusiasm that comes from really knowing one’s subject.” (5)

According to Stimpson, the UK Geology Teacher is an endangered species. The irony is that, adept at cajoling countless students into the damp rigours of fieldwork or the intimate revelations of rocks, Geology teachers would seem to have been an integral part of Geology's resurgence in recent years.  To expect Chemistry, Physics, and Biology teachers to launch repeated waves of students into university Geology departments is short-sighted and naive. Our best advert for our subject, is ourselves. 


I'm grateful to Joanne Watkins at ESWA for introducing me to the remarkable turnaround in WA Earth Science fortunes during a recent visit to Oz, and for supplying the graphs above. Chris King kindly supplied the UK schools data. Email discussions with Peter Harrison, Keith Turner and others on the Scottish Geodiversity Forum helped crystallise thoughts with regard to the 'Scottish scene'.


(1) Earth Science in Western Australia

(2) Earth Science Western Australia

(3)           Robinson, R., Harrison, P. & Banks, J.  Higher Geology and Earth Science Provision in Scotland. Post November 23rd 2012 Meeting paper.
(3)           Informed Choices: A Russell Group guide to making informed choices on post-16 education.
(4) Department of Education. Draft National Curriculum programmes of study for KS4 English, maths and science.

(5) Geology Teachers in the UK - an endangered species. 01 June 2010.


No comments:

Post a Comment