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.
My old school runs Geology A-level and turns out a disproportionate number of students who go on to do geology degrees every year, in my year-group alone there were 5 people who went on to do single honours geology degrees and even more who did Earth Sciences. The A-level class only had about 15 students! This is also the case for other schools which run an A-level geology course.
It should be taken in addition to other science subjects; surely a student with Maths, Chemistry and Geology A-levels under their belt would be one of the best equipped for a degree in the subject?
I completely agree about GCSE though, the small whisker of geology included in geography is insufficient.
However, can you have a GCSE subject with no A-level counterpart? Shouldn’t there be an unbroken chain of educating geology to children and is it fair to get a student really excited about a subject and then turn around at the beginning of the sixth form and say they have to go and do some other subjects instead in order to carry on with it later?
Thoroughly enjoying the blog!
Geology A levels *do* turn out a disproportionate number of people doing geology – but that’s the point. If those people are going to go on to do geology degrees anyway, what purpose does the A level serve?
we’re not going to get to a point where there are enough qualified geologists out there to provide A level provision for the whole country, and there’s only 1000 or so Geology places available at university anyway. IF universities are having to start from the assumption that some people will not have A Level geology, then what purpose does A Level geology serve?
As far as your example goes – I think someone with Maths Chemistry and Physics would be even better prepared.
Maybe a better compromise would be to split Geography into two separate subjects – divide the human from the physical, and bring aspects of the geology syllabus into geography? That would be a far more practical way of developing an earth science A level in every college, without the pressure to find so many classically geology trained teachers.
I did both GCSE and A Level geology, at two different places but with the same tutor. GCSE was only offered to those students who had mostly A grades – we did it as an extra course after school (extra-curricular).
When I went to college, in my second year, I was talking to the tutor and he said he had given up teaching at GCSE level, because students would go onto A Level, and think they knew it all because they’d done it before. I knew exactly what he meant – but I don’t think this means it should be stopped at GCSE level.
I was lucky, my GCSE geography teacher was amazing and she taught us some geology – mostly volcanoes and earthquakes, but that was enough to jump at the chance to do geology when it was offered.
At college, I did maths and physics and completely flunked both. I’ve now finished my second year at uni as a Geology undergrad, and I wholeheartedly agree that doing other courses at A Level would’ve been a better idea! Chemistry, physics, maths and maybe geography, but no geology. The first year of uni, as you said, was to get everyone to the same level so it was a bit of a bore but second year has been so much more of a challenge, especially where maths is concerned! I have had to teach myself basic trig again for geophysics.
I do agree with having some form of geology on the curriculum as a more widely studied subject. SO many people say to me “geology, that’s interesting, but what can you do with it?” and are even more clueless when I say “pretty much anything” – I think more people need to learn about it, more people need to be aware of it and how big it is in our day to day lives.
As an aside, before uni, I trained to be a plumber. I did a multi-skills course which included electrics. We had to draw a sketch of how power is generated and how it gets to our plugs. Everyone was shocked when I drew an oil rig, to get oil/gas, to drive a turbine, to generate electricity…