Last reviewed 16 July 2012

In schools, we are used to using meters, crocodile clips and pencil and pad, but things are changing. Nick Swift details how science teaching will be affected by the growth in computer science and how it needs to meet this challenge head-on.

Current standards

Guidance on controlled assessments provided on the website of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) states that students should have the ability to recognise that particular technologies, eg data logging, might be more suitable ways of obtaining data, and that they should be able to suggest and explain why certain technology is more appropriate than others. This is a clear indication of the standards expected for using IT in the classroom by the end of a GCSE science course.

Heads of Science should be aware that from year seven, there is sufficient progression in digital literacy, information technology and computing science for students to be fully competent in using electronics and computers across their science work — both practical and theoretical. This means confidence in connecting sensors to interfaces, recording, exporting, storing, processing and displaying data and, in some cases, even being able to write code for a Raspberry Pi or similar device to control experiments. Students’ perception of science in school needs to keep up-to-date with the modern world and the close link that exists between science and computing.

Replaced by software

Walk into many research laboratories today and one might be struck by a lack of “instruments”. There will be a screen relaying multiple readouts, but dials, needles, digital displays and gauges will be conspicuous by their absence. The instrumentation is there, but it is composed of sensors, A to D converters, interface units and digital displays. In many cases, the experiments run without any clumsy, slow and vulnerable people getting in the way.

This has been made possible because both the scientists and the computer scientists have designed the experiment and written computer code to control it and deal with the data. The ultimate example of this is the Large Hadron Collider — an enormous scientific instrument used by physicists to examine the smallest known particles — at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). However, data for many smaller science projects is also collected using computers and many scientists have, by necessity, turned themselves into skilled software engineers.

The push for progression

The Government is firmly behind massive change and growth in computer science in education. In January, Michael Gove gave a speech at the BETT technology event announcing that the ICT programme of study is so bad that it is to be removed in September. The Government is advocating radical change in computer science and exam groups are producing what look like pretty demanding Computer Science GCSE courses (eg AQA’s Computer Science for examining in 2014). The next decade is going to see a shift in the way computing is taught in schools and the Royal Society’s 2012 report, Shut Down or Restart? The Way Forward for Computing in UK Schools, recognises that this will affect science teaching, stating that traditional science subject boundaries will need to evolve, giving computer science its rightful place in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) camp.

The role of IT and science

Using IT in science is not an extra or a frill; it already plays an important part in:

  • quality of learning and student involvement in problem-solving

  • improved understanding of mathematical formulae through use in algorithms

  • success in controlled assessments

  • motivation to continue science to a higher level

  • teacher and student access to a rapidly growing pool of online resources.

In controlled assessments for existing GCSEs, students are encouraged to use IT for data logging, analysis and display, and also to explain why a particular technology is the most appropriate. According to the Royal Society’s report, it seems likely that in the future, students may be coding devices to read (eg data from a USB connection) and automatically processing it to identify trends or relationships.

Science can provide valuable contexts for computing investigations. These could be graphically modelling charged particles in an electric field, creating a graph from digital spectrometer data, displaying biological field data using GPS or modelling simple harmonic motion or stress/strain. Science is the home of non-abstract algorithms, mathematical relationships and the microelectronic sensing and logging hardware needed to collect information. It is also the home of modelling and simulation. It is a rich environment for digital literacy, computer science and information technology, as defined in the Royal Society’s report.

Government policy

The Government is looking to the Royal Society for advice and is getting plenty of it. Hard on the heels of Shut Down or Restart? comes the project Vision for Science and Mathematics Education 5–19. This will look at science education in the context of:

  • teachers (and the wider workforce)

  • leadership and ethos

  • skills, curriculum and assessment

  • infrastructure

  • accountability.

It is certainly going to shape government policy in the future and, together with Shut Down or Restart?, will recommend a new IT focus on staffing, continuing professional development (CPD) and resources as part of more joined-up thinking about science, maths and computing.

There may be two possibly unintended consequences of the government policy on boosting computer science in schools. One is that more students might prefer to follow computer science to A-level than one of the three sciences. The other is that teachers coming into the profession might prefer the physics/maths/computer science specialisms at the expense of the other pure sciences. These teachers might not fit into the single department model or even the single school employment model.

New ways of thinking

President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, said in his foreword to the Shut Down or Restart? report:

"...the role of computer science as a discipline itself and as an ‘underpinning’ subject across science and engineering is growing rapidly. This alone is motivation enough, but as this report shows, the arguments for reforming computing education are not purely utilitarian. It is becoming increasingly clear that studying computer science provides a ‘way of thinking’ in the same way that mathematics does, and that there are therefore strong educational arguments for taking a careful look at how and when we introduce young people to the subject.”

New ways of thinking in computer science can benefit science teaching by linking rigorous mathematical thinking to basic science. Perhaps the most striking difference can be shown by the quite “dull” activity of letting a cart roll down a slope. By adding ultrasound sensors and timing software, time, position, velocity and acceleration can be graphed. If students have to work out how to code a computer to create the last two derivatives then they should have a more solid understanding of the maths and science involved. Hopefully, more students will be motivated to learn by looking at science from a computing perspective.

Whatever our views on the future of science, computing and maths education, it is reassuring to know that there is so much high-level discussion taking place that should inform government and the profession about the way forward. CPD is certainly going to be a priority in driving change and the benefit of this is apparent.