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Boys fall further behind in science

AAP survey says girls prefer the study of living things and boys prefer physics and practical tasks. David Henderson reports.

Thirteen year old boys just want to have fun and girls just want to learn. This appears to be a key message in the fourth survey of 5-14 science by Government's Assessment of Achievement Programme (AAP), (TESS last week).

The study also threw up the surprising finding that 70 per cent of S2 pupils say they never use computers in science, and 19 per cent use them only sometimes. These figures will underscore the Government's new technology drive.

The 1996 study of 6,500 pupils at three of the 5-14 stages confirms the importance of gender for performance in key areas of the science curriculum.

Analysis of S2 test results indicates a pronounced deterioration by boys, according to Rae Stark, lead researcher on the project run by Strathclyde University.

As girls grow older they pull ahead of boys on many scientific tasks, particularly in written work. There is less difference in practical tasks. Girls are better at process-based work and boys are better on knowledge. Differences are more marked by S2.

Researchers tested at P4, P7 and S2, and found that of the 60 tasks in primary 4, girls performed better in eight and boys in only three.

By primary 7 girls performed significantly better on 19 of the 100 tasks and boys on 14. At S2 girls performed better on 30 of the 125 tasks and boys on 26.

There was a noticeable gender difference by S2 in 45 per cent of the tasks. In contrast, there was only an 18 per cent difference in primary 4.

Girls say they prefer science topics that focus on understanding living things and life processes, while boys like physical science topics as they grow older. Even as early as primary 4 girls say they like biology, nature study and the processes of science.

Ms Stark has been involved in all four AAP surveys. She says: "There is evidence of an increasing gap between boys and girls, and girls are more likely to achieve as the survey goes on. There is also a gender gap at S2 level."

The gap in results between boys and girls at Higher grade has its origins much further back in school, she believes.

Her study, conducted with Professor Tom Bryce, also highlights the continuing difficulties in applying new technology to classroom teaching in secondaries. In primary 7, 53 per cent of pupils said they never used computers in science and 39 per cent said they only used them sometimes. Only eight per cent said they often used computers.

These figures are notably higher than those for S2 pupils, where only around 10 per cent of pupils said they were regular computer users in science classes.

The survey also found that:

* Science guidelines are making their presence felt, at least in primaries.

Progress is slow.

* Teachers identify lack of time and resources as obstacles to implementation.

* There is a need for staff development locally and nationally.

* Teachers place increasing emphasis on knowledge and understanding.

* Opportunities for hands-on science are relatively rare, although pupils say this is a particularly enjoyable aspect of school science.

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