Mars engineers life after school

24th October 2008 at 01:00

A "considerable minority" of pupils believe their physics and maths studies have no relevance to life after school - and engineering may provide the key to overturning that view.

A survey of 526 physics students in S3-6 showed that even a sizeable chunk of those taking Higher and Advanced Higher physics failed to see the subject's wider relevance.

The figures emerged in a study by the researchers at Glasgow and Strathclyde universities behind Engineering the Future, a project designed to increase the prominence of engineering in schools.

Researchers found that "a considerable minority reckoned that no aspect of physics would be relevant to them in the future; they included a proportion in S5 who can be presumed to have chosen their subject relatively freely". Some 33 per cent of S4 pupils who were taking physics and offered an opinion said it had no relevance, while 12 per cent of S5 students said the same.

The researchers had hoped that pupils would make reference to "deep learning", which involves critical analysis of new ideas and linking them to already known concepts and principles. Those who did identify aspects of physics they considered relevant to future careers and studies, however, usually cited specific content knowledge instead.

"In fact, very few volunteered references to anything which could be recognised as deep learning," they stated in a report. Only around 3 per cent of S3 and S4 cited deep learning; the figure increased to 9.5 per cent in S5 and 12 per cent in S6.

The results were taken from 873 questionnaires returned by pupils in seven Scottish schools, who were asked about subjects relevant to engineering, their awareness of engineering as a possible career, and influences on their subject and career choices.

Their responses showed that maths was often dismissed in the same way as physics: "In terms of relevance, a considerable minority reckoned that no aspect of mathematics would be relevant to them in the future; this included a significant proportion of the small number of S6 pupils."

Pupils were also asked how much they enjoyed the subjects. A "solid minority" found nothing or very little enjoyable about maths, and there was a striking trend within that group: "Interestingly, and of concern, the proportion was greater for older pupils, who were less likely to have been compelled to study mathematics."

In another report, however, the Engineering the Future team has shown that work with S2 pupils, which incorporates practical engineering projects, can make it easier to show the relevance of science.

At St Aloysius' College in Glasgow, teachers used a project centred around NASA's device sent to explore Mars, and the researchers noted: "The engineering insert developed pupils' awareness of engineering and the applications of science - important because pupils need to be aware of the crucial value of engineering to the economy and almost all aspects of modern life, and of its intrinsic interest as a means of solving many kinds of problem and making things work."

Teachers observed that the activities were less constrained than typical science lessons, in which pupils would "get all the equipment they required and the experiment would happen as expected". They also thought that the activity "brought into focus the idea that this is what people actually do in their jobs".

The Mars project was also turned into a two-week trial with S2 pupils at St Joseph's College in Dumfries, whose success persuaded the school to continue using it in future years.

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