Most of you should now be aware that the current FRST CEO, Murray Bain, has been appointed to the role of Chief Executive of the soon-to-be Ministry of Science & Innovation, which will formally start on November 1st. (H/T: NZBio and SMC.) This Ministry is a merger of MoRST and FRST into a single organisation.

Today the Royal Society and the Chief Science Advisor (Sir Peter Gluckman) has released a paper Inspired by science, prepared by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, discussing these issues. (Available as a PDF file.)

Alison Campbell has recently written a number of posts on science education and encouraging students to enter science courses. (She also shares writing Talking Teaching with Fabiana Kubke.) Hopefully we’ll me hearing more from Alison on this!

(Source: xkcd.com)

(Source: xkcd.com)

I have to admit I was a little disappointed at the seeming timidity of what I take to be their main conclusion:

[…] an important first step in engaging more young people in science could be to convene a forum of scientists, educationalists and policy makers to debate the future of science education in New Zealand.

While this echoes concerns Alison (for one) has pointed towards on sciblogs, I have to admit I was hoping to see more pragmatic suggestions that could be implemented. They do offer sketch outline scenario in the latter portion of the paper, but seem to back away from presenting this as a suggestion, instead offering it as a ‘possibility’ that others could then resolve. In the end, then, this is perhaps a more general discussion paper:

Its primary intent is to take a strategic look at how science education can best meet the needs of our emerging adults and our country.

However you view it, the paper has some material to consider. It opens with the observation that

[…] the number of young people choosing to study science at school once it is no longer compulsory is steadily decreasing[,]

where this apparent disinterest in science stems from, and how students might be encouraged to engage in science.

After giving a brief history of science education in New Zealand, they divide the purposes of science education into four aims:

  1. Preparing students for a career in science. (Pre‐professional training)
  2. Equipping students with practical knowledge of how things work. (Utilitarian purpose)
  3. Building students’ science literacy to enable informed participation in science‐related debates and issues. (Democratic/citizenship purpose)
  4. Developing students’ skills in scientific thinking and their knowledge of science as part of their intellectual enculturation. (Cultural/intellectual purpose)

which they expand upon. (Anything missing? I would wish ‘in science’ in the first, to be replaced with ‘using science’: There is a far wider range of jobs that use science than the traditional research jobs.) The conclude this section with:

There have been a great many attempts to reform the curriculum, [… but] while this work (sometimes) resulted in the appearance of new words in official curriculum documents, it has had very little effect on the way science is taught in schools. Secondary school science programmes largely continue to teach conceptual knowledge in discrete disciplines, while in primary schools science has a low profile, appearing mainly as a topic or context for inquiry learning.

They briefly offer why this is (or might be) the case.

Next they turn their attention to estimates of how well students engage with and achieve in science, before looking to future needs. In the latter they note

In addition, today’s young people have a very different orientation to knowledge from that of previous generations. For today’s ‘digital natives’, teachers, books and adults are not their main sources of information or authority and school classes are often seen as irrelevant, slow‐moving, and something to be endured.

They report that

Three recent studies carried out in Australia, the UK and Sweden which investigated why the numbers of students choosing to study science once it is no longer compulsory continues to decrease, found that students resented the lack of opportunity to discuss, reflect, offer opinions or be creative in science classes. One group of researchers found the students’ experiences were the result of an over‐full curriculum and didactic teaching methods. When teachers feel pressured to cover every aspect of the curriculum, students are, as one group of researchers puts it, ’frogmarched across the scientific landscape from one feature to another, with no time to stand and stare, or to absorb what it was they had just learned.’ Students in all three studies, while recognising the importance of science content, saw science as boring, irrelevant, unrelated to the real world, difficult and, as a result, not for them. In all the studies, the persistence of students who did go on in science was attributed to out of school factors — mainly family members who were strong advocates for science or education along with the students’ own motivation and ability to persist with independent learning.

I can’t but help think that this isn’t entirely new.

They suggest the curriculum needs to alter so that

Young people [might] understand processes, systems and relationships, to appreciate the connections between knowledge systems rather than the details of the systems themselves. […]

Educationalists who think this way are strongly critical of the traditional academic curriculum, the view of knowledge that underpins it and the role it has played in sorting students for future employment. However, they do not devalue knowledge: rather they are advocating a different view of knowledge. […]

I hope my skeleton outline and quotes encourage some readers to pursue the paper.

I can’t offer much in the way of thought, not being familiar enough with the current school regime. (Others, please do feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.)

Having said that, two quick general thoughts:

Firstly, before trying to engage those outside of the teaching profession, they will need to elaborate what takes place in the classrooms at present. Without this, the contribution from those outside of teaching may be limited to parents of older children who are near completion of their schooling or who have completed school.

Secondly, I will quibble – again! – that their year 11-13 scenario should be worded ‘careers that use science’, not ’careers in science’.

Other articles on Code for life:

Career paths, redux – the academic research career is the exception

How to teach elementary science – chicken feet first

Advice for students heading to university

The roots of bioinformatics

Finding platypus venom