The Concern of Declining Numbers in Science Education

We live in a world dominated by science and technology. Yet many countries struggle to educate and train sufficient numbers of qualified people in these strategically important disciplines. Malta is by no means alone in needing to increase participation in science and science related subjects, especially at the post-16 stage. Dr Richard Evans takes a vast look at the issue.

Employers have voiced concerns over the years about the quantity and quality of school leavers, graduates and undergraduates entering employment and lacking scientific and mathematical capability and skills. In many countries this is now seriously threatening their ability to compete globally and hence create sustained economic growth. Short term solutions by encouraging skilled people from overseas to fill the skill gaps and shortages are fraught with difficulties and can raise fundamental ethical questions.

The situation is very different in East Asia where science, mathematics and technology education is highly valued with students leaving schools, colleges and universities in ever greater numbers qualified in these disciplines. These subjects not only underpin scientific and technological research, innovation and new industries. Equally importantly, they create a more scientific and technologically literate society, essential to life in a world that is increasingly influenced by these key strategic subjects. A more scientific way of thinking is essential now and in the future.

Many countries are now carrying out comprehensive reviews and reforms to increase the participation rate in these subjects at all stages of the education and training system. The starting point is a detailed analysis of the curriculum, including the degree of choice and how science should be introduced and taught at the primary and secondary stages. These reviews and subsequent reforms must also undertake a detailed and wider analysis of what the country needs, in order to create competences and skills that relate to the country’s economic and employment priorities and policies, i.e. more attention to commercial, technical and vocational programmes. If the stock and flow of qualified people in science and science related disciplines is insufficient to provide industries with the necessary skills, it will weaken significantly any country’s ability to compete globally, innovate, create growth and as a result, secure future prosperity.

Concerns about these subjects, particularly in the West, include:

the nature of the subject; the sequencing in terms of time, specific topics and structure; how the curriculum is delivered; and how effective and lasting learning is realised. Even accepting a possible cultural and historical resistance and hostility to such subjects as science, mathematics and technology, other key factors are in play. One factor is the very wide choice available in the curriculum in many countries where too many students opt to study subjects that involve little mathematics and science, particularly the physical sciences. Unfortunately many students perceive these subjects as difficult and look for what they perceive as more attractive and better paid occupations in law, accountancy and media. As a result universities and colleges in a number of countries close or downsize departments in mathematics, science and technology. The numbers of students studying these subjects post-16 continue to decline and at least remain relatively static across the EU.

The consequences are manifest in that there is a growing mismatch between demand and supply into occupations that require qualified people in scientific and mathematical professions and craftspeople, technicians, technologists in engineering, manufacturing occupations and other areas that require these disciplines. Equally important is the fact that science is becoming multidisciplinary, requiring knowledge and understanding of the physical and life sciences so an effective, balanced and comprehensive science curriculum is even more essential.

One issue that needs to be addressed in science curriculum reform is the sequencing of the subjects to be taught. At present in America, Biology figures significantly in the first three years of high school (B-C-P) and only in the later stages are Chemistry and Physics introduced. Many now argue that this is a damaging “upside down” approach and seriously weakens the basis of effective science teaching, particularly in the physical sciences and mathematics. Mathematics and physics are the foundations for all the sciences and need to be introduced earlier in the curriculum beginning with basic physics and mathematical concepts then progressing to the other sciences.

In England the issues are different; although again many feel greater emphasis should be placed on introducing the foundations of mathematics and physics in primary education. Continual dilution of the science and mathematics syllabuses, particularly at GCSE level causes additional concerns to colleges and universities which offer scientific and mathematical related subjects. Very low pass rates for grade C in mathematics GCSE (typically below 20%) cause great concern about the mathematical ability of students progressing onto further and higher education.

Science is critical to Malta’s endeavour to establish a more flexible, innovative and secure economy and equally important, to create a larger labour force that matches the needs of that economy. There is no point in offering classes in schools in entrepreneurial skills, if these strategically key subjects are not mandatory and of the highest quality.

Increasing Participation in Science

  • Science must be compulsory for all students at secondary school particularly at the later stages and different programmes available that recognise their career aspirations;
  • The curriculum must include a mix of theory and practical activity;
  • The subject taught by qualified, inspiring and up-to-date teachers;
  • Teachers fully supported by adequate resources, CPD programmes and technical support staff;
  • Both class rooms and laboratories must be fit for purpose and attractive in appearance;
  • Students have opportunities to undertake relevant programmes of work shadowing/experience
  • The curriculum should be relevant and offer an effective balance between theory and practical work;
  • The students must be introduced to the essential features of scientific methodologies at an early stage and the importance of such elements as observation, speculation, investigation, objective analysis and the inherent uncertainties in science;
  • Essential to develop a critical facility and a logical frame of reasoning;
  • The curriculum must not be driven and hence constrained by over assessment and examination regimes.

Dr. Richard Evans is a Council Member within City & Guilds.

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