April 1, 2008

GCSE Astronomy Becoming More Popular For Students

Students of all ages are showing their enthusiasm for astronomy, with more people than ever choosing to study it at GCSE level. In a talk on Tuesday 1 April at the Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting in Belfast, Professor Iwan Williams of Queen Mary University of London, will describe the new syllabus for this qualification that has seen the number of students taking it rise from around 250 in the early 1990s to more than 1200 today.

The increasingly popular course began life as "ËœO' level Astronomy in the early 1980s and is taken by students in schools but also by adults who study the qualification in evening classes. It is one of the only qualifications in astronomy available at a level below an undergraduate degree course.

The course has been revised recently and an updated and modified specification will be taught from 2009 with the first cohort of students taking the new exam in 2011. The new course will be divided into two units: Understanding the Universe and Exploring the Universe.

Understanding the Universe is made up of four topics: Earth, Moon and Sun; Planetary Systems, Stars and Galaxies and Cosmology. Students study aspects of astronomy from lunar and solar eclipses to what makes the Earth (and perhaps planets around stars) habitable and the prospect of life elsewhere.

In the second unit, Exploring the Universe the students are expected to carry out practical observations to study astronomical phenomena for themselves. These can vary from simple daylight observations needing no specialist equipment, such as the use of a shadow stick, to those requiring more equipment such as a photographic record of a lunar eclipse.

Professor Williams comments, "It's wonderful to see so many people choosing to study astronomy. Students are excited and inspired by the wider Universe and this draws many of them to careers in science and engineering in later life. The new specification brings in cutting-edge ideas and offers a challenge to learners of all abilities."


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