Parents, not quality of teaching, are to blame for turning youngsters off careers in science, according to new research by a science education expert.
Attempts to motivate pupils to take science beyond school have focused on improving teaching, says Susan Rodrigues, who carries out research into the teaching and learning of science at Dundee University. But in research she carried out with fellow academic Divya Jindal-Snape, parents' views were found to be the main barrier.
"It would seem if we want more youngsters to pursue careers in science, it's the parents' and society whom we have to try and influence," concludes Professor Rodrigues.
During a survey of more than 500 14 and 15-year-olds from five schools in a Scottish city, Professor Rodrigues was, she says, "struck" by the pupils' "incredibly positive views" of science lessons and teachers. The vast majority saw the subject's relevance, with 82 per cent of boys and 80 per cent of girls believing that science was useful in real life and was not only needed for school work.
The pupils even held hopeful views about jobs in science. Money was identified as being very important when it came to future career choices and a significant majority (78 per cent of the boys and 74 per cent of the girls) believed that scientists earned a lot. They also felt that being a scientist would not be boring (65 per cent of the boys and 62 per cent of the girls).
Yet less than half the sample - 44 per cent of the boys and 34 per cent of the girls - was considering a career involving science.
Professor Rodrigues says: "The argument for people not pursuing science seems to be to do with the teaching. What we discovered was pupils found science interesting, said the teachers were great and even engaged in science in their own time - like watching David Attenborough.
"But when we asked them if they would pursue science as a career, virtually all of them said no. When we asked, `why?', it was mainly because, while their parents wanted them to go to university, they didn't want them to study science."
Parental pride in their career choice was important or very important to the vast majority of pupils (71 per cent of the boys and 76 per cent of the girls). But only 26 per cent of the boys and 17 per cent of the girls felt their parents wanted them to follow a career in science.
The researchers conclude: "The findings suggest that pupils' perceptions of parents' views and attitudes to science have a significant influence on pupils' decision to pursue a science career."
Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, agrees that parents wield the biggest influence when it comes to their children's future career paths. And parents will push them towards careers they know about, she says, evidenced by the dynasties that pop up in acting, music and, of course, teaching (see page 6). "The range of careers a family knows about will naturally be limited. I mean, what does an engineer do? What job does a scientist do? Everybody sees the doctor, but if you study biology at university, what jobs are there for you?"
Speaking at the Edinburgh International Science Festival this year, Paul Thomson, head of Jordanhill School, Glasgow, expressed similar views about the influence of parents on pupil career choices: "Careers come from parents. Middle-class, well-educated parents want their children to enter the professions."
More research is needed, says Professor Rodrigues, who acknowledges the sample used in the study was small. Nevertheless, the findings will influence the way teachers are trained at Dundee University, she says, as they also uncover the aspects of science youngsters most want to learn about. "Topics used commonly in class were rated lowest in terms of their interest. They were interested in things to do with health and well-being - cancer, for instance. Greenhouse gases, plants and electricity were low on the list."