Relight their fire

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
Young Scots are switched off science because some topics have been 'done to death'

scottish 14-year-olds recognise the significance of environmental problems - but in classic Nimby fashion, they are not prepared to make personal sacrifices.

The Relevance of Science Education (ROSE) survey of nearly 3,000 S3 pupils also shows that young Scots are not interested in learning about environmental issues, let alone pursuing careers in this area.

One of the authors of the report, Moira Finlayson, a project researcher at Glasgow University's Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences and former head of science at Kilmarnock College, believes that part of the lack of interest in environmental issues stems from duplication in other subjects.

From discussions with the Learning and Teaching Scotland team rewriting the science curriculum, she suggests that such topics have been "done to death"

by everyone at school and there need to be more links between curricular areas.

The survey also found that pupils rated primary science as "neither interesting nor a good preparation for secondary".

Mrs Finlayson says she and the other members of STEM-Ed Scotland (an organisation championing science, technology, engineering and mathematics education), who were commissioned to carry out the survey, were surprised by this.

Alan Roach, emeritus professor at Paisley University's school of engineering and science, who co-wrote the report, was concerned by the young people's attitudes to science and scientists. Only 17 per cent agreed with the statement that "we should always trust what scientists have to say".

"We regard this as perhaps the crucial obstacle for those seeking to enhance public understanding of science and a wake-up call to the profession for scientific controversies to be debated in more carefully measured and objective terms," he said.

Only 48.5 per cent of pupils agreed that the benefits of science were greater than the harmful effects it could have. The authors said: "In our view, the response to this item indicates that there could be significant perception issues to address, if Scotland is to realise its ambition to become a society welcoming and enthusiastically engaged with science."

Not surprisingly, the most able pupils were the most engaged in science.

However, when asked whether "we should always trust what scientists have to say", the "three sciences group" were the most negative of all.

The survey also produced a wide variation in the levels of interest in science between different class groups, suggesting that individual teachers could have a significant motivational and inspirational effect. Thus, a class group at Gairloch High had an average score of 2.95 (in a four-point scale of positive responses) compared to 1.79 for a group in a South Ayrshire school.

The report suggests that since some topic areas - such as dreams, cancer, weightlessness, exercise and fitness, the impacts of drugs, poisons, electric shocks, explosive chemicals and dangerous animals - are relatively popular, "somewhat different choices may be appropriate for different groups".

It also suggests there is significant scope for more work on what interests those pupils who are currently "switched off from science".

"Interest in science or technology, once engaged, may relatively more readily be amplified through further study: the gradient of the 'uphill struggle' may become less severe as progress is secured. If one starts from a position faced with pupil scepticism and dislike, it is a useful tactic to make the first steps as appealing as possible."

* For a full report, see

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