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Students conduct an experiment in Surrey, B.C., Wednesday. A revised curriculum for B.C. science classes is in the works.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A physicist at Simon Fraser University who helps assess the education of high school students bound for his institution is giving a failing grade to a proposed new physics curriculum that is part of an overhaul of what is taught in British Columbia schools.

"It's slapdash," says Steve Dodge, an associate physics professor and member of the department's undergraduate curriculum committee.

"The curriculum materials that have been circulated for review are unworthy of public review. They're so bad."

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Prof. Dodge, who is especially concerned about Grades 10 to 12 and outlined his concerns in both an interview and a letter to The Globe and Mail, said lessons on such subjects as motion, energy, light and electric fields are vague, contradictory and confusing.

"Everyone on my committee had the same, basic perspective," he said.

His concerns come after the most recent international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study of students, conducted every three years and published in 2013, found a "statistically significant" decline in Canadian student science performance, though the figure was above OECD averages.

The curriculum overhaul in B.C. is aimed at maintaining literacy and numeracy foundations while encouraging "competent" thinking and communication.

The teachers union defended the process.

"Parents don't need to worry students are not going to get the necessary math skills or reading skills, but there's going to be more time for teachers and students to go in depth in a variety of areas," says Jim Iker, president of the B.C. Teachers Federation, which has members involved in the process.

The Education Ministry issued a statement that said the physics curriculum for Grades 10 to 12, which is the focus of Prof. Dodge's concern, has yet to be developed, though a proposal circulated in August will be posted for further feedback next spring and implemented for the 2017-18 school year. The ministry said the K-9 curriculum, including physics concepts, is available for use by teachers in the current school year and will be legislated for implementation for 2016-17.

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Grahame Rainey, president of the B.C. Science Teachers' Association, said in an e-mail that the current draft documents for Grades 11 and 12 are very early and do not represent the finished curriculum.

"There is a considerable amount of work still to be done by the curriculum team before the curriculum will be even close to a document ready for use in schools," he wrote.

Indeed, he added that in the past, these early draft documents would not normally have been released, but the Education Ministry has adopted a routine of posting material to solicit feedback.

"I have read Mr. Dodge's letter and can assure him that the members of the curriculum teams are highly experienced teachers that have both the expert training and the energy to develop a good curriculum that works for all students in B.C.," said Mr. Rainey, whose organization has been involved in developing curriculum.

Mr. Iker said the review is a work in progress that has involved 100 teachers on various relevant committees over the past few years to revise curriculums for kindergarten to Grade 12. He declined to comment on issues around physics, except to say work there is in very early stages.

Over all, Mr. Iker said that revised curriculum will include such principles as more project-based learning, and less emphasis on memorization while maintaining key skills in numeracy and literacy.

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Marina Milner-Bolotin, an assistant professor in science education at the University of British Columbia's education faculty, said the science curriculum needs to link big ideas to everyday life.

"Today, the most important thing is to empower kids to think scientifically outside problem-solving during class."

She said the idea is to empower students to be informed citizens, especially in an era when, for example, climate change is a common point of discussion.

"You want people to have useful science knowledge – not the knowledge to be able to pass the test, but knowledge for the sake of applying it to everyday life problems."

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