Science for Public Understanding / Science in Society 1999

Directors: Andrew Hunt, Robin Millar, Angela Hall

The AS Science for Public Understanding course was a test-bed for trying out the model of a scientific literacy course as described in the Beyond 2000 report. The specification for this new course gave the same weighting to ‘ideas about science’ as it did to ‘explanatory theories.

The course was developed following the Dearing Review of post-16 qualifications which led to the introduction of the AS and A2 courses. At the time it seemed likely that students would study five ASs in their first post-16 year, with courses such as Science for Public Understanding helping to broaden the curriculum.

About the course

The course is presented as a series of topics which provide the contexts for teaching about science explanations and about the nature of science. The topics are divided equally between issues in the life sciences and issues in the physical sciences. Topics range from the germ theory of disease to uses and risks of radiation to energy futures.

The AS course aims to develop a more mature and coherent understanding of science explanations and ideas about science met during GCSE courses.

Within a year of the launch of the new AS courses as part of Curriculum 2000, it became clear that despite expectations most students would opt for four rather than five AS courses. As a result the interest in one-year AS courses, such as Science for Public Understanding, was less than expected. However the numbers of candidates for the exams was significantly larger than had been the case for its predecessors at this level. From 2007, Science for Public Understanding became a full A-level subject with the name Science in Society

The A2 course introduces frontier science with a particular emphasis on neuroscience to illustrate how scientific explanations develop. Students further develop their knowledge about the nature of science. They are given the opportunity to use reasoned debate to demonstrate and apply their grasp of the broad principles and frameworks of ideas within the field of contemporary science and technology.


AS and A2 student books, with student sheets and teachers’ notes available online.


The assessment model includes a critical account of scientific reading as part of the controlled assessment for the AS course; there is also a case study paper, based on pre-release material, to emphasise the importance of topical science communication for the A2 course.


The AS Science for Public Understanding course was the forerunner to the core GCSE Science course in Twenty First Century Science.

A study of the AS course by researchers at King’s College led to a report called Breaking the Mould which informed the development of the GCSE programme.