Voting with their feet
Science is important and everyone should learn it at school. Who could disagree with that? It is among several positive messages from a survey of more than 1,000 14 to 15-year-olds' opinions about science education in England.
A majority also agree that school science is interesting, that studying it will be helpful to them in their everyday lives and will improve their career chances, although, in each case, boys agree more than girls. They also mostly judge that school science has increased their curiosity about things that cannot yet be explained and has taught them how to take better care of their health. The survey provides no strong evidence that most students regard school science as a difficult subject, although more girls acknowledge difficulty than boys.
Data from more than 30 countries was collected last year in the Relevance of Science Education project (ROSE), based at the University of Oslo.
By no means all the messages from English students were positive. For instance, they do not see school science as making them more critical and sceptical, nor as opening their eyes to new and exciting jobs, nor as increasing their appreciation of nature.
Only 15.5 per cent of girls and 26.8 per cent of boys showed any interest in a career in science, with 17.5 per cent of girls and 49.5 per cent of boys thinking of a job in technology. A big majority made it clear that they do not like school science "better than most other subjects".
Asking students to indicate what they would like to learn in their science lessons, the survey found big gender differences. For girls, the 10 most popular topics relate almost exclusively to health, eg eating disorders, or the treatment or prevention of cancer and Aids. In contrast, boys'
responses reflect a strong interest in destructive events or technologies, eg how the atom bomb functions, biological and chemical weapons and what they do to the human body, and brutal, dangerous and threatening animals.
Looking at the 10 topics of least interest to them, both boys and girls include "plants in my area", "famous scientists and their lives" and "how crude oil is converted into other materials".
We need to be careful in evaluating these responses, although English students were remarkably similar to their peers in other developed countries. They were also responding to statements about "science", rather than chemistry, physics, biology or earth science. And the curriculum implications are by no means always straightforward - for example, the scientific principles underlying some of the topics students wished to learn about may be inappropriate for GCSE level.
Nonetheless, we should take note of the ROSE findings. They cast some doubt on the frequently expressed view that school science is "difficult", and they raise questions that are important for teachers, policy makers and curriculum developers. Are current initiatives to include historical aspects of the scientific endeavour likely to encourage more students to study science beyond 16? Is it possible to construct a single GCSE science curriculum to meet the needs of both girls and boys? If not, how is a differentiated curriculum to be reconciled with a commitment to gender equity and a broad and balanced science curriculum for all?
More fundamentally, is it either desirable or possible to construct a science curriculum based on students' expressed interests? If curriculum relevance is to have any meaning at all, it cannot exclude the views of the students themselves.
Edgar Jenkins is an emeritus professor at the University of Leeds. More information about the ROSE project is available at www.ils.uio.noforskningrose