Participation in Science – Could This be a Problem? – VIEWPOINT

Following a recent seminar on post-16 science, I reflected on the age-old issue of why science and technology do not attract more students into the post-16 phase. It has been evident since the Great Exhibition of 1851 that the culture in this country is hostile to science, engineering and technology.

Could it be that some of the problems can be placed at the door of the science teaching community? I ask this question to provoke debate! Increasingly students choose a mixed economy of A levels and whereas 20-30 years ago students would take combinations of the separate sciences with applied and/ or pure mathematics, this is no longer the case. Students have, rightly or wrongly, assumed that their future careers are brighter in other disciplines, e.g. accountancy, law, business studies, etc. Science is too important to the future of this country to be driven from the curriculum through mistaken perceptions. Is science to be seen as elitist and exclusive and suffer a similar fate to Latin?

We all live in a scientific technological age, and it is essential to produce a more scientifically literate society and increase the stock of qualified scientists, whether at graduate, undergraduate or technical level. As somebody who has taught science in schools and colleges, I feel some of the blame could be apportioned to teachers/ lecturers. Many seem to perpetuate the mythology that science is ‘difficult’. Too often science lessons are boring and overladen with didactic approaches. Facts are given which are never used again. This is sad when I believe that science is one of the most exciting and stimulating disciplines in the curriculum. Witness the enthusiasm of primary school pupils who are excited by and open to the subject, yet something seems to happen when they move to the secondary and tertiary sectors. Currently many teachers argue for the return of separate sciences and enthuse about the ‘good old days’. It never worked, except for the few. They seem to want to perpetuate wastage and want to equate quality with rarity.

If the past methods have failed let us recognise it. Let us not be dragged back by the past, but openly accept the pull of the future. Many teachers/lecturers in the post-16 sector still condemn balanced science in the National Curriculum (NC). However, balanced science — ‘science for all’ — offers real opportunities to open up access and increase participation. It is slowly beginning to overcome the gender biases. All too often teachers/lecturers use the highly questionable benchmark of the A level to discredit the emerging achievements of balanced science. I believe it is A levels that are the problem with their overloaded syllabuses, often accompanied by ineffective demonstration and practical work.

Validation panels are often critical of post-16 science courses. Traditional teaching and learning methods and a lack of challenging and open-ended assignment work are cited. The excitement of scientific investigation is often marginalised and lack of imaginative teaching opposes the true challenges of the subject. For somebody who cares about science, who wants to see it figure more significantly in the post-16 curriculum, I ask that we all reflect to see how we can improve the current situation. There are exciting initiatives and dedicated, committed teachers/lecturers around, so the moment is right to capitalise on this potential.

The new funding regimes in education and training, whether you like it or not, are driven by student numbers and it is therefore essential that science, which is already a high unit cost activity, recruits as many students as possible. It is important to attract more people into science, whether they wish to move to science specific or science-related courses.

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