Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Science literacy – getting more people into science, innit

Part one of a two-part blog on science literacy: Education

Let’s start with the basics. What is science literacy? Why is it important? What is the government doing about it? And so on.

And who better to speak to than the science tsar of the realm, Professor John Holman? He advises the government on the science curriculum and has been the director of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programme, a national drive to consolidate action for better science teaching and a more comprehensive curriculum, since October 2006.

The aim of STEM is to enthuse enough children in school with science to feed into universities and thence to dribble into R&D. This new generation of scientists will fuel our flagging economy, help the UK become the world-leader in science R&D and generally save the world.

Also, it’s about ensuring that each and every kid grows into an adult with a fully functional sense of ‘How Science Works’, as the GSCE topic is called. It was rolled out across the GSCE science curriculum in September 2006, and forms a large part of the single ‘core’ science GCSE, and part of the double (now called “additional science”) or triple science.

Why is ‘How Science Works’ important?

Prof Holman says: “It is about making sure that the population have sufficient scientific understanding to serve them well for the rest of the lives. So this is about not only understanding the basic laws of science, like what a gene is and what electromagnetism is, but is also about understanding the methods of science. It’s about how scientists do experiments; how they manage to draw conclusions, even if their results are uncertain; and things like peer review, sample size.”

This kind of understanding of scientific method can be valuable when putting science journalism into a sensible critical perspective, as science correspondent for the Guardian Alok Jha suggested in my last blog post, but also any source of information about science. And in a world threatened by climate change, tricky health choices and inundated with ever speedier and more sophisticated technologies, including biotech, that is NO BAD THING.

For example, if people can understand what science is about, they are probably more likely to make better-informed judgements about important things like health and cutting their carbon emissions.

Is the STEM programme delivering?

There have been some quibbles about this year’s set of core science questions by Ofqual, for having too many multiple choices, and that some of them were too easy to answer without having actual scientific knowledge.

In response, Professor Holman says: “Now, this wasn’t true about all of them, it was true about some of the questions on some of the papers. That’s an area where we’ve got to sharpen up, we’ve got to tighten up the standard of question setting for ‘How Science Works’.”

But it seems that it’s not only Ofqual taking issue with the science curriculum.

I spoke to a mother of a 14-year-old boy, just about to start his GSCEs. She said that science isn’t made relevant enough to kids these days and their lives, or exciting enough.

Ex-science teacher and author Clare Dudman agrees that science must be made more engaging by having a “more hands-on experience in small classes where pupils discover for themselves the fun of science”. One of the problems limiting this is health and safety measure that she says are “inappropriately restrictive”. Although Clare admits it’s a while since she’s been at “chalkface”, this is exactly the same argument made by the Science Minister Lord Drayson in yesterday’s Guardian, see here.

Meanwhile, award-winning science blogger Ed Yong is concerned that science education in the UK, which he declaims as “sorely deficient” despite the recent reforms to include science literacy, is suffering under “target-driven style of modern syllabuses and exams that encourage people to learn from checklists”. Yong would like to see children developing “reasoning skills, inquisitiveness or skeptical empiricism.

Similar criticism could (and has been) be levelled at the whole state education system. Teachers have been accused of palm-feeding children to pass exams, head teachers accused of pressurising teachers to meet targets, and the government accused because they set the targets in the first place.

This is far from the ideal scenario for nurturing curiosity and sprouting understanding in children’s minds.

For example, podcast editor at Nature and TV presenter Adam Rutherford says that in biology syllabuses evolution is covered too late and not in enough depth, something he discovered researching a programme for Teachers TV. He explains:

“An old awesome Russian dude once stated, quite correctly, that “nothing makes sense in biology except for in the light of evolution”, so it’s daft not to approach biology with this in mind.”

On the uptake

Despite these various critiques of the science curriculum and its contents, there has recently been a significant upwards shift in the numbers of GCSE and A-level students picking to study science, pointing to the fact that the STEM drive seems to be working – at least to some extent.

For GCSE students, more of them are choosing to study science in depth, with a 20 per cent growth in those opting for all three sciences.

Professor Holman tells me that at A-level there has been a 10 per cent rise in those picking science subjects this year. He says: “The subject that has been most endangered was physics, now A level physics numbers were up 4.5 % this year… after many years, several decades of decline.” The 70s and 80s were the lowest point in the popularity the sciences, especially physics.

Why the sudden renaissance?

The STEM programme set out to improve science teaching. Regional, and one national, Science Learning Centres have been instrumental in training and re-training teachers. Good teachers make the subject more attractive.

Professor Holman says that there is sense of economic realism among students that subjects like physics, maths, chemistry, and biology make you employable than if you take “softer” [his quote marks] subjects.

“The evidence is very clear that if you chose maths of science subjects, you will have higher lifetime earnings that if you don’t,” he says.

Also, Professor Holman reckons that there is more of an air of optimism about science in this country than there was in decades past, that science is now perceived as more of a solution, rather than a cause, regarding the environment. For example, geoengineering.

“There are also some very interesting developments going on in technology, such as stem cell research, and this will add to the feeling that science is dynamic and has a lot of good to do to improve people’s lives,” he adds.

Extra points for STEM?

What about the Conservative’s proposal to weight sciences and maths with more points towards university admission? And, are they harder?

According to Professor Holman, it’s not the actual difficulty that is important (and it is hard to measure) but the perception of it.

He suggests a market solution to counter-act this instead of the points system, which he thinks would be very difficult to calibrate:

“I think a better way, another way, anyway, would be to say to universities, you must say very clearly which A-level subjects you prefer. Cambridge and LSE have already done this. They have two groups of subjects: these are the ones we like and these are the ones we’re not so interested in. And as you can imagine subjects like maths and physics and French and history are in the group they like.”

Getting kids sparked up to science

Rutherford points out a big contradiction between “the public’s adoration of natural history on TV presented by Britain’s most trusted man [David Attenborough, as if he needs any introduction], and relating it to scientific thinking. But this love for the natural world is also an opportunity to learn, if it is tapped into properly and from a young age. He suggests: “Simple things like counting species as measures of biodiversity, or basic taxonomy, or collecting fossils on beaches. Darwin himself used to do this with his brood, and the evolution chest sent out by the Wellcome Trust earlier this year included lots of those types of exercises.”

Lord Drayson, in the Guardian article in mentioned earlier, said that the solution for getting children more into science is for them to meet scientists and see what they do, such as at the Centre of the Cell, a new children’s science education centre.

Other ways for children to meet scientists are at festivals: music ones, such as Latitude, where science talks take place, or specialist sceincey ones, notably the British Science Festival, taking place every September (hurry, it ends tomorrow!)

There are talks from scientists for children and ‘Family Fun’ days exploring topics from biodiversity to AIDs at The Royal Institution.

Or, at roadshows, such as the Bang Goes the Theory series. There’s a few more dates left on the tour.

The government’s science literacy drive ‘Science, So what? So Everything’ had tours over the summer with interactive beach science, and this may be repeated next summer. 

Then, of course there are plenty of museums to visit: The Science Museum and the Natural History Museum are the obvious ones. There is a Science and Industry Museum in Swindon. But also check out the Wellcome Trust events and exhibitions, especially with older children, although one of their current exhibitions, Exquisite Bodies, is not recommended for the under-18s.

Please comment with any other suggestions for interactive stuff, other museums or exhibits or anything parents might find useful to enthuse their offspring with the joys of science. Cheers! 


  1. The Centre of the Cell gets my vote for the best new education initiative. By some significant margin. It gets oodles of points for actually involving students in the design of the activities.

    Also to clarify, my negative views on the state of modern science education are aimed at things like syllabuses and exams, and not at *science teachers*, who I largely praise and admire for their efforts.

    And Adam Rutherford rocks. "Old awesome Russian dude" indeed. Snert.

  2. Hehe. He does make me giggle.

    The Centre of the Cell sounds really clever, and anything new and shiny is always a bit exciting. Also, I forgot to mention the new Darwin centre at the Natural History Museum, which also offers the chance for children to interact with scientists in the lab. Sounds pretty cool, methinks.

    Yep - I can see how the para following your quote may make it seem like it's an extension of your viewpoint - it's mine and it's a gross simplification, but y'all get the idea.

  3. Was listening to last week's Guardian podcast and this website was mentioned: (New Outlooks in Science and Engineering)

    Scientists and Engineers blogging and interacting with children/young adults to help give them advice on their education options in their fields.

    Pretty cool.