Hard cell

1st July 2005 at 01:00
A couple kiss in a giant Bio Bubble. How does that help in the fight against glandular fever? By convincing youngsters that science can be fun so they study for jobs in the health service, writes Martin Whittaker

Why are fewer and fewer students taking science at school? This question - and how to reverse the decline - has been preoccupying schools, universities, government and industry. The statistics speak for themselves.

Last year 7,288 fewer young people in the UK took science A-levels than in 1996. The picture is similarly bleak in universities: last year 1,329 fewer people graduated in chemistry than nine years ago.

The decline is not just a British issue: the Relevance of Science Education project based at the University of Oslo is finding similar patterns across the industrialised world. Yet, despite low take-up of the subjects at school, the study finds no evidence of falling interest in science in general.

"Popular science magazines and TV programmes about new medical developments, environmental issues, new inventions and technologies and new scientific discoveries have increasing public appeal," it reports.

Industry has a huge stake in this. Three years ago the Treasury warned that many employers were reporting difficulties in filling posts in physical sciences and engineering. They cited the poor quality of applicants.

So what is industry doing about it? The way businesses invest in education has changed considerably, according to Professor John Holman, director of the new National Science Learning Centre in York. In the 1980s industry poured money into education, he says, but businesses now are much more focused about how they work with schools.

"Companies are now quite sophisticated about what teachers' reactions will be, for example, to logos placed prominently on things," he says.

"Teachers and indeed their pupils are quite sophisticated in spotting what might be subliminal messages coming from the company - and that's quite a sensitive area. Schools quickly reject anything they think is propaganda."

Companies are also taking a much longer view, realising that young people are their future workforce. Some target science education very effectively, particularly those in pharmaceuticals.

Historically, both Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham had a good track record of supporting science education. When the two companies merged four years ago, they developed a new science education strategy based on two themes: giving the subject context to make it more relevant to young people by offering students access to its own scientists and facilities; and enhancing science teaching by supporting professional development.

The company sponsors fun resources such as the Bio-Bubble, an inflatable which accurately recreates a human cell. It can hold 40 people. The bubble tours schools where performers conduct science shows and workshops inside for pupils in Years 8, 9 and 10.

The shows are designed to engage students, while giving them a memorable 3D experience of how a cell works. One is called Snog, an absorbing tale of young love and the life of the glandular fever virus.

Another project supported by GSK is Science Across the World, where teachers can help young people give science a global perspective,by, say, comparing diet between schools in Brentford and Botswana. (See page 11) The company also backs resources. One is a CD-Rom called The Science Behind Medicines, a biology and chemistry teaching resource for 15 to 19-year-olds. Other resources are aimed at teachers: Active Assessment shows how assessment for learning techniques can be integrated in science lessons.

Last year GlaxoSmithKline put pound;3 million into education in the UK.

There are obvious benefits to schools, but what does the company get from it?

Kay Roberts, who manages its educational programmes, says: "We want to ensure that there's a pool of scientists from which we can recruit. We want enough young people to go into science teaching, into research at universities, joining government and the public sector.

"Often I think pharmaceutical industry careers can be invisible to people in schools. There's still thinking in terms of stereotypes - mostly medicine and nursing. There's not a huge awareness."

Other big companies are also actively supporting science. Rolls-Royce has some 700 employees supporting around 400 schools in many roles, working as governors, work experience supervisors, or mentors. Last year the company launched the Rolls-Royce Science Prize, open to school teams of all ages.

It aims to highlight new teaching strategies that inspire pupils and generate an interest in science.

And the multinational Siemens has won awards for its innovative collaboration with schools. At one of its manufacturing plants in Lincoln it is helping to encourage students taking GCSEs in engineering. (See page 10).

So is industry's approach helping? Professor Holman believes it is. He cites its involvement in developing a new A-level chemistry curriculum.

"The result of that was we got an A-level which was rich with examples from the pharmaceutical industry, from agriculture, from the steel industry. And that makes for a richer and more interesting way of teaching.

"One of the things that stops youngsters going forward to take more sciences is they're not sure what it would lead to. So, understanding more about careers in science is very important, and that's where industry can help a lot, particularly if there's a big local employer."


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