The Geological Society of London have recently published an article about how brilliant it is that there appears to be an upturn in the number of people picking up Geology A Levels in the UK. I’m not so sure that I agree.
The main thrust of the articles arguement is that more people studying geology leads to more people graduating with degrees in it, which leads to more people contributing to a healthy earth science sector. Incidentally, at over 75%, earth science has one of the highest employment rates after graduation of any subject, beaten only by medicine and vetinary science.
However, I don’t really see the link between the number of people studying at A level and increased graduate levels. The numbers of schools and colleges offering geology qualifications at A level are so low that even a 5% increase in uptake is going to result in a minuscule effect on the total number of geologists at graduate level.
Perhaps the most convincing arguement put forward in the article is that it is always good to have more people in the general population with an understanding of geology. If more politicians, business leaders and so forth had a basic understanding it would be a lot easier to deal with situations such as the Eyjafjöll and Grímsvötn eruptions, or the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Geology is not just about looking at rocks – it is about developing a broad understanding of how many systems inter-relate, and – perhaps more importantly – understanding the intricacies and foibles of probability when dealing with natural events.
So does this arguement of training the general populace have any merit? In its aim, certainly. However, in practise, using A levels to achieve this is largely pointless. For starters, very few places offer A level geology in any case. Beyond that, people are focussed on picking A levels that will help them get onto their degree courses. Many of those who pick geology A Level do so because they want to go on to study geology anyway.
So here’s a controversial idea from a passionate earth scientist. Scrap A Level geology.
This might seem a bit odd given that I did it myself, I want to see more people studying the subject, and I work in a university Earth Science department. However, there are several reasons I’ve come to this conclusion, so bear with me.
1. Nowhere does it. Seriously, the number of places that actually let you sit a geology A Level is miniscule. If most of our undergraduates are arriving without A Level Geology we have to teach from that baseline anyway, so A Level geology doesn’t really get you any advantage at university other than some sections fo the first term of the first year being exceedingly dull.
2. Other subjects would be more useful. Earth science is just that – science. In fact the best thing about it is that it draws together aspects of all the sciences. If you want to be a successful well rounded earth scientist then you need a good grasp of the basics of physics, chemistry, biology, and maths. The number of undergraduates who arrive and are then shocked at the fact the geochemistry and geophysics courses involve chemistry and physics is genuinely disturbing. Maths and statistics are fundamental parts of any science (despite what some palaeontologists might try and have you believe). Fundamentally, not enough students are coming to university with the right qualifications, and an A Level geology is less valuable than a ‘proper’ A Level science. If you’re a teacher, or know a teacher, and there is some contact with GCSE students considering geology – tell them to go and get a stack of science and maths A levels.
3. If you want to educate the broader population, VI Form is not the place to do it. Instead of A Level Geology, we should be offering GCSE geology, or at least writing huge amounts of it into the geography, chemistry, physics and biology specifications. People love geology. Find me a kid that doesn’t like volcanoes or earthquakes or fossils. You can’t. The problem is that between the ages of 5 and 15 there’s basically no contact with geology in schools – it’s conspicuous only in its absence from the curriculum. It is a fantastic, interesting and fun subject – it’s the kind of subject that makes things like physics, chemistry and biology relevant. Teach everyone geology, not just a few who happen to be within range of the 2 places* in the country that still teach it.
The public engagement and training part of this is really fundamental. The biggest issues facing society over the next 100 years are ones of climate and natural resources. Both of these are earth science subjects. No other subject deals with them in their entirety. Training our specialists and our leaders is not enough. We need to train the population as a whole, as these are the people who must understand the change, push for the change, and vote for the change.
So Geology at Key stage 3, a Geology GCSE, and scrap it at A Level so that students can arrive at university prepared for the science they need to do. The content of a Geology A Level will have been squeezed into their juicy little brains by Christmas of their first year, and they’ll be far better prepared for the next 2 years of study, and a career in Earth Science.
* may be an exaggeration.