Re-igniting Scientific Interest

Update: While the general trend is certainly right, it seems the figures used in the report for science enrollments are inaccurate, and probably overstate the extent of the decline.

The Australian Academy of Science has quantified what we all knew – enrollment in school science courses is plunging. The scale of the fall is even larger than I expected; the number of students studying some science in the final years of school is down from more than 90% to barely half in twenty years. I hadn’t realised it was ever as high as that.

Why does this matter. The reasons have been rehashed many times but here are a few:

• We need more scientists. It’s true a handful of people manage careers in science without studying it at school, but the numbers are so small as to be insigificant. How we are supposed to address the problems of tomorrow without many of our best and brightest minds going into science and engineering is beyond me.

• We need general scientific literacy. Having a basic knowledge of science is no guarantee against having the wool pulled over one’s eyes by climate change or vaccine deniers, but it certainly helps.

• Scientific education can, or at least should, stimulate us to think more scientifically. That is to approach problems with a rational mindset, rather than seeing them as being controlled by random forces or by the underpants we wore that morning.

• The world is a beautiful and fascinating place. Anyone denied knowledge of how it works is missing out on part of the richness of life.

Part of the problem here is that schools are being expected to teach a wider array of topics, most of which really are important. It’s very hard to squeeze them all in. I don’t want to get into a debate over whether it is more important students study more science or more non-English languages, for example. Likewise, I once thought we could make room for more science by making sport and PE optional earlier on in the school career, but rising obesity rates have changed my thinking on that one.

Nevertheless, the decline of science in schools is a huge problem. Ironically one reason people may not be truly shocked by the scale of the problem is the inadequate understanding of statistics in our society, something better science education might address. Look at it this way. Twenty years ago, only one in every 16 students was completing high school without at least some science training in their final years. Now that is one in two. That’s a huge proportion of the future decision makers in society with no exposure to science, and quite often a dislike (or even contempt) of it.

The report’s lead author, Professor Dennis Goodrum, notes, “What’s more, the downward trend appears likely to continue. While the decrease is slowing, there is no indication that enrolments have reached the lowest point.”

Quite a few things are being done to try to address this. The report recommends:

• Reduce the amount of content for science subjects to a realistic level
• Support science education programs that capture the interest of year 7 to 10 students
• Provide more professional learning opportunities for senior science teachers
• Develop a suite of digital curriculum resources for the new national curriculum

The last three are common sense. The first one is a bit tricky. Goodrum argues that we’er trying to fit too much into science courses at school, so they get taught in a way that tries to cram too many facts into too short a space of time, making the subject boring and off-putting. This is undoubtedly true. One the other hand, if you decrease the amount of content then the brightest students will be frustrated at how little they are learning, as well as entering university needing to know even more. In my years of demonstrating pracs to first year physics students it is quite clear that the students now know a lot less maths and science than those a decade and a half ago, which means we have to spend a lot ot time teaching them things their forerunners already knew.

I suspect the answer here is to offer more science options. The Melbourne University Physics department has a stream for the most advanced students, a stream for the bulk of physics students and one for those who are not planning to go into a related field but need to know a little for cources such as Vet Science. The last stream is also great for those who want to learn the concepts of science for interest, rather than specific career goals. Regretably we don’t get all that many students in the last category.

Similar options at high school might be valuable, but there is the clear problem that most high schools are not large enough to be able to offer them all.

Education, however, is not my speciality. What I can say however, is that this is a problem that must be addressed from multiple angles. One of those angles has to be inspiration. At the moment we largely try to address this by projects like the Science Circus, where university students come to schools and show people how much fun science can be my blowing things up with liquid nitrogen or explaining the science of slime. That’s great. It’s important that children are encourage to love science.

However, to really make a difference we need to encourage students to think “I want to be part of science” rather than “Science is cool to watch”. There have been some great initiatives in this regard. We have scientists going into schools and projects to humanise scientists such as I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here (BTW I really think the name needs work).

My book was written to try to address a gap in this market. Even in the days when I was at school, that is when almost everyone was studying some science, none of us knew what scientists actually did. Enthusiastic as I was about pursuing a career in science I could not have named more than a handful of living scientists. I had no idea how many jobs there were in science, let alone the diversity of activities involved. I had some awful stumbling moments when asked what being an astronomer would actually mean, particularly if one was not confident about being the next Stephen Hawking.

So far sales have been disappointing, and it is hard to tell if that is a result of weaknesses in the writing or a failure of promotion. I’m sure many criticisms of my book could be made (although so far the only ones I have heard are that it doesn’t “look” fun enough, that it should include more information about what is required to enter each field, and that the table of contents is not very useful). However, I do honestly think that anyone who reads it will come away with a sense that science is a field that requires many, many people, and if they’re young and bright and enthusiastic that could include them.

I’m not sure that is a message they’re getting many other places.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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