Tuesday 5 April 2011

Clast Unsupported - tales from a small Sussex town

Recently I emailed my local college, where I was educated to see if they wanted any help with geology revision for their GCSE cohort, a couple of years ago I’d been along to one of their fieldtrips for their coursework and felt like lending a hand again. I received a startling reply, that the school no longer runs GCSE Geology (nor A-Level) due to a poor interest rate amongst pupils.  So, further to my previous post on what primary school children have the opportunity to learn within the geosciences it’s worth looking at what students at my former school will have the opportunity to learn about the goings on inside their planet.

So what do the children get taught?

Geoscience tends to get relegated with geography – so only students who whose GCSE (a GCSE is a qualification gained at 16 that is taken by all UK students before progression into A-Levels, diplomas or the working world) geography (within my year of 270 about 60) will receive tuition into the earth’s processes. Rocks and materials (i.e granite is hard, where cement comes from etc) is covered in chemistry through KS3-GCSE. Looking to the syllabus of GSCE Geography (in this case the exam board AQA) there is a strong focus as to the involvement of plate tectonics and associated landforms (ie Fold Mountains and exciting volcanoes). Excluding a mere footnote there is no interest in Resources, nor petrology or palaeontology. Geography students will have the idea that geosciences is about plate tectonics & volcanoes, how it affects peoples and nothing else.  It is not geology they are studying; it is simply physical geography with people.

The town has been flooded as a partially as a result of upstream geology - this is part of taught geography (GCSE). But the affects are on people, not geological past of stratigraphy

The focus on exciting aspects of geology would however supply interest – 15 year olds are unlikely to be interested in thrust faulting in Scotland but a huge eruption of Yellowstone (which AQA seem to have an obsession with) may encourage a student to read more – and eventually be captivated.

So, say a teenager in a small Sussex town (Uckfield, for those in the area) decides to have a look into the geosciences what will they find? Well Uckfield has two bookshops and one library (which isn’t quite the coolest place to ‘hang out’) I realise that online books are a major market, but for the purposes of clarity and realism (most 15 year olds don’t have a credit card) I will stick with what is locally available.  So starting with the bookshops.

In WH-Smith I could find no books on the geosciences (couple on GCSE Geography though) but could read to my heart’s content on local buses through the war, Chameleons and Dr Who. Mildly outraged I called my local branch and was informed that the store is not large enough to stock science books. Looking to the magazine rack only New Scientist was propping up science – while there were 10 train-enthusiast magazines and stacks of those with the words ‘country’ ‘house’ and ‘life’. Further down the street ‘British Bookshops’ which stocked no geological books (50% of the shop is devoted to cards) but did feature enough science fiction to fill anyone’s need.  I called the store again to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything - but found that my original searching had proved to be correct. So, within a town of 14,000 people there is no geologically orientated book for sale (admittedly there may be some in the numerous charity shops, but no 15 year old goes in there – except under duress)

14,000 people but no geology taught or sold. 

The library on the other hand has a wealth of decent books, suitable for local interest and public reading. I had attempted to get hold of the number of times these books had been lent in order to assess their interest – but the information, in this digital age is not recorded.  The local library holds eight books which I feel (having read most of them!) give a good introduction to geology across the world and UK (including the brilliant 'Earth: An Intimate History by Fortey' and the child / youth friendly Moving Earth by Orne).  However, the library is rarely frequented by teenagers and from memory I always felt a suspicious and frosty reception whenever I went in there.

The local area is well noted for its geology. Charles Dawson, the lawyer who ‘discovered’ the Piltdown Man lived in the town, while the first dinosaur was discovered 10 miles away, the local company Soil Instruments is a world leader in geotechnical design and the Weald, in which the town sits was discussed by Darwin in this keystone publication and exploited for 2000 years for its iron. So what can we surmise? Well, that interest in the geosciences cannot be relied upon to be stimulated in school (much although I thank several members of staff for propping up my interest during my studies there) due to the watery and non-direct curriculum, nor can interest be gained via local bookshops - this could well be the reasoning behind the cessation of geology being taught at the local college.  The lack of publications available does not just affect the young; adults, whom may have missed out in geology at school or (re)ignited an interest to are denied the opportunity to purchase books in their own town which, although they can access titles online easier, many geological inspired books are easy and pleasant to read for the casual reader (Fortey's Earth for example) and will captivate someone in a shop - but not on Amazon.

This does speak for itself within stats, I am, to my knowledge of the 2 years above and one below (roughly 1000 students), the only student to leave my college and pursue a career in the geosciences. The college has generated enough fashion students to fill Milan, Paris and New York many times over but it is letting the science that will allow those fashionisters to make bright dyes and sparkly dresses falter.   

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