Memorandum submitted by the Royal Astronomical
All science educators are concerned about the
falling numbers of young people choosing to follow science courses
at school and subsequently at university.
The Science Curriculum at GCSE has a useful
amount of material on Astrophysics and Geophysics. The material
is inspirational and up-to-date. It covers:
observations of the earth from space
and the use of space probes;
the geological evolution of the earth,
plate tectonics and seismic activity;
the nature of stars, galaxies, black
holes and the Big Bang; and
the search for extra-terrestrial
The A-level syllabuses contain appropriate amounts
of material on Particle Physics and Astrophysics in their core
and optional sections. The material is new to students and is
GCSE and A-level material is assessed in a straightforward
way and does not require excessive factual recall.
There is an appropriate amount of practical
activity for students. They can:
find information about space probes
on the Internet;
observe the Sun and Sunspots; and
use the National Schools Observatory
and the Faulkes Telescopes (later in 2002).
The mathematical content has been reduced to
the bare minimum, particularly at A-level. University courses
have had to adapt to the loss of skills, particularly of the calculus.
This reduction of higher mathematical skills was intended to allow
more students access to the A-level courses but has had little
effect. Physics is a mathematical subject and a further reduction
in mathematical content must be resisted at all costs.
The Astrophysics and Geophysics themes in the
14 to 19 curriculum offer an inspirational insight into the way
scientists create models of the universe and of the earth and
how they gather and process data to test these models. This syllabus
content is well received and is a useful counterbalance to the
more material parts of the curriculum.
The lack of a good career structure, particularly
for career researchers, is a problem. It is easy for teenagers
to have a picture of the career of a doctor or a lawyer. It is
much more difficult for them to visualise the work of an astronomer
or a geophysicist. The perceived lack of financial rewards relative
to that of other professions is also a significant disincentive.
Note: The Education Committee of the Royal Astronomical
Society is investigating the possibility of setting up a free-standing
AS-level in Space Studies. This course would take themes from
the GCSE Double Science curriculum and extend them into a "space
context". In particular, living in space, observations from
space, formation and evolution of the universe, geological evolution
of the planets and the exploration of the Solar System.