Science and Technology Education
Current Challenges and Possible Solutions

 

To be published in Jenkins, Edgar (ed) (2002) Innovations in
Science and Technology Education Vol VIII 
 Paris, UNESCO

 

Svein Sjøberg[1], University of Oslo

svein.sjoberg@ils.uio.no, Home page http://folk.uio.no/sveinsj/

 

 

Contents
 

Summary. 1

Science and Technology: Key features of modern societies. 2

Challenges and perspectives. 3

Falling enrolment, increasing gender gap?. 3

Achievement studies – the critique. 4

Scientific and technological illiteracy and the Public Understanding of Science?. 5

Disenchantment with S&T? 13 possible reasons…. 7

Contradictory (and optimistic) trends?. 11

An international concern…... 12

Who needs Science and Technology – and Why?. 12

Science and technology in schools. 15

Present curricula – the critique. 15

Science and Technology  in schools – recent trends and responses. 17

Ways forward?. 19

References. 20

 

Summary

This chapter describes and analyses some of the challenges facing science and technology (S&T) education by relating these to their wider social setting. Although the focus is on aspects emerging from a European (or OECD) context, some of the issues raised are likely to have a wider validity.

After describing the problematic pattern of student enrolment in science and technology, the chapter suggests a series of underlying reasons for the difficulties that have arisen. The description is necessarily tentative and exploratory, and it is intended to present ideas for a discussion of possible explanations. This is followed by a similar analysis of who needs science and technology education, and for what purposes. The point here is that the problem of student recruitment may be perceived differently from different perspectives and by different interests. Hence, there may also be different views on suitable strategies to overcome it. The chapter also offers a critical description of school science and technology education, together with a brief account of some recent international trends. These trends may provide ideas for possible ways forward.

 

Science and Technology[2]: Key features of modern societies

 

No period in history has been more penetrated by and more dependent on the natural sciences than the twentieth century. Yet no period … has been less at easy with it. This is the paradox with which the historian of the century must grapple. (Hobsbawm 1995, p.522)

 

Our societies are dominated and even 'driven' by ideas and products from science and technology (S&T) and it is very likely that the influence of science and technology on our lives will continue to increase in the years to come. Scientific and technological knowledge, skills and artefacts 'invade' all realms of life in modern society: the workplace and the public sphere are increasingly dependent on new as well as upon more established technologies. So, too, are the private sphere and our leisure time. Scientific and technological knowledge and skills are crucial for most of our actions and decisions, as workers, as voters, as consumers, etc. Meaningful and independent participation in modern democracies assumes an ability to judge the evidence and arguments associated with the many socio-scientific issues that appear on the political agenda.

 

In short, modern societies need people with scientific and technological qualifications at the highest level as well as a general public which has a broad understanding of the contents and methods of science and technology, coupled with an insight into their role as social forces that shape the future. Science and technology are major cultural products of human history, and all citizens, independently of their occupational 'needs', should be acquainted with them as elements of human culture. While science and technology are obviously important for economic well-being, they must also seen from the perspective of a broadly based liberal education [3].

 

One might expect the increasing significance of science and technology to be accompanied by a parallel growth in interest in these subjects and in an understanding of basic scientific ideas and ways of thinking. This does, however, not seem to be the case, especially in the more developed countries of Europe and the OECD.

 

The evidence for such claims is in part based on 'hard facts' (educational statistics relating to subject choice in schools, enrolment in tertiary education etc.), in part on recent large–scale comparative studies like TIMSS and PISA (described later in this chapter) and in part on research into, and analysis of, contemporary social trends. The situation is briefly described and analysed below.

Challenges and perspectives

Falling enrolment, increasing gender gap?

In many countries, recruitment to scientific and technological studies is falling, or at least not developing as fast as expected or planned for. This lack of interest in science often manifests itself at school level at the age where curricular choices are made. In many countries, there is a noticeable decrease in the numbers of students choosing (some of) the sciences. The trend is consolidated in admissions to tertiary education. A similar trend occurs in some areas of engineering and technology studies. It should, however, be noted that there are large (and interesting) differences between the various European countries and between the different disciplines within science and technology. The fall in recruitment has been particularly marked in physics and mathematics.

 

In many countries, there is also a growing gender gap in the choice of scientific and technological subjects at both school and tertiary level. Many countries have had a long period of steady growth in female participation in traditionally male fields of study, but this positive trend seems now to have been broken in some countries. It is a paradox that the break is most marked in some of the Nordic countries, where gender equity has been a prime educational aim for decades. For example, while the Nordic countries come out on top of all the countries in the world on the Gender Empowerment Measure, an indicator developed by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP 2001), the same countries have very low female participation rates in science- and technology-related occupations and studies.

 

Concern about unsatisfactory enrolment in science and technology is voiced by many interest groups. Industrial leaders are worried about the recruitment of a qualified work force. Universities and research institutions are anxious about the recruitment of new researchers, and education authorities are worried about the already visible lack of qualified teachers of the scientific and technological subjects. In some countries, the difficulty of recruiting sufficient numbers of new entrants to the teaching profession has become a matter of national concern, especially when the level of recruitment does not even allow for the replacement of those who are retiring. This concern is often based on comprehensive appraisals of the education and labour markets.

 

The concern is not confined to numbers. There is also a more or less identifiable fall in the quality of the newcomers. A lower quality may, of course, be a consequence of the fact that very few candidates compete for places at institutions where the entrance qualifications were previously very high. Many institutions of higher education are unable to fill their places in science and technology with students of a satisfactory quality.

 

The problems in recruitment are revealed by a range of objective and uncontroversial educational statistics. Cross-national data on a range of issues are now collected and published by UNESCO, the OECD, the European Union and other organisations, and the development of common descriptors and criteria has made its possible to make comparisons between different countries and regions. Evidence about pupils' achievements, quality, interests etc. is available from a number of research projects, notably large comparative surveys such as TIMSS and PISA. Some details are given below in Box 1.

 

 

 

 

Box 1. Statistical information and large-scale comparative studies

There are many excellent sources of up-t-date international information and analysis on education. Here are a few of them.

UNESCO is the body with a global responsibility in this field. It defines common indicators to facilitate valid international comparisons, and collects the relevant data. These are published in comprehensive published statistical reports that are also available via the web site http://www.unesco.org/

At regular intervals, UNESCO also publishes more analytical, global reports such as The World Education Report (UNESCO 2000), together with more targeted and specific reports on progress in the field of education.

The OECD has a large education sector, and it publishes an important annual report Education at a Glance (i.e. OECD 2001b). These, as well as other reports, including underlying statistical annexes are available online at http://www.oecd.org/   Although the focus is on the OECD countries, the data as well as the research cover other countries.

For science and technology   (as well as for mathematics) education, the TIMSS study (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) has become very influential. TIMSS is one of many IEA studies (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement). Background information as well as downloadable reports and data files are available at http://timss.bc.edu/

TIMSS will be followed up in years to come (from 2002), although the acronym TIMSS will get a somewhat different meaning  (e.g., T for 'Trends' instead of Third')

The OECD has recently developed its own set of studies of student achievement, under the acronym of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). PISA covers some 30 OECD countries together with some non-OECD countries. It aims at assessing how far students who are approaching the end of compulsory education (about the age of 15) have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in society. The first report (OECD 2000a) presents evidence from the first round of data collection on the performance in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy of students, schools and countries. It reveals factors that influence the development of these skills at home and at school, and examines the implications for policy development. Other reports and rounds of data collection will follow, and these studies are likely to have a great political significance in the future. Reports, background material and statistical data are available at http://www.pisa.oecd.org/

 

Achievement studies – the critique

Large-scale comparative studies such as TIMSS and, to a lesser extent, PISA may have the (possibly unintended) side effect of harmonising or universalising science (and other) curricula across nations. Test format as well as curriculum content may come to provide standards, 'benchmarks' or norms for participating countries as well as for other countries not immediately involved in the research. In fact, the term 'benchmark' is frequently used in TIMSS. An example is the "TIMSS 1999 Benchmarking Study" that sets out to compare states and districts across the Untied States.

 

Furthermore, the international and cross-cultural nature of studies such as TIMSS has necessarily required the development of test items that can be used independently of educational or social context in an attempt to avoid ‘cultural bias’. As a result, these test items tend to become decontextualized and rather abstract. This approach runs contrary to recent thinking about teaching, learning and curriculum development, in which personal and contextual relevance is emerging as a key educational concern. The publication and availability of TIMSS items in many countries might even be said to provide an 'incentive' to use tests that, in both their closed multiple choice format and their lack of social context, run contrary to national or local traditions.

 

Comparative research in education is important, but there is an obvious need to complement the valuable data from TIMSS-like studies with more open and culturally sensitive information and perspectives (Atkin and Black 1997). The PISA study is an attempt to widen the scope of such large-scale studies, and the underlying framework for PISA is, in contrast to TIMSS, not bound to school curricula. The publication of the first results from PISA (OECD 2001a) suggests that the PISA studies will meet some of the criticisms raised against the IEA-based studies like TIMSS. PISA will continue to develop and produce new results for at least a decade.

 

Nonetheless, TIMSS and PISA do have some common characteristics. They are both high-level initiatives 'from the top' to monitor scholastic achievement, and the main results are published as rankings or league tables. The media coverage, assisted by the projects' own reporting, often trivialises the educational enterprise and reduces it to a contest of national prestige. The studies are also, with some exceptions, confined to rich countries in the OECD. In most countries, these studies are initiated and heavily funded by governments and Ministries of education. This reflects the legitimate needs of decision-makers and politicians to obtain comparative data on the scholastic achievement of their pupils and to have some measures of the efficiency and cost-benefits of their national educational systems. In an age of globalisation and economic competition, national authorities are increasingly concerned about how well their own education system compares with that of others. This, of course, assumes that quality can be measured against common standards. Similarly, national authorities have a legitimate need to obtain comparative international data relating to such parameters as unit costs, the effectiveness of teacher training, the significance of class size, and resource deployment.

 

One may, with considerable exaggeration, characterize projects like TIMSS and PISA as the educational parallel of so-called Big Science or techno-science. The scale and costs of these comparative studies are many factors higher than the kinds of research in which most science educators are involved. The institutions that undertake these studies are often government agencies for research and development, or research institutions from which the government may reasonably expect a degree of loyalty. Such large-scale research projects do not emerge from an independent and critical academic research perspective, and one may use Ziman's concept of 'post-academic science' (Ziman 2000) to characterize them, their loyalties and their implicit values and commitments.

 

Not unexpectedly, those who pay the bill also influence the 'definition' of what counts as science. Given the strong domination of this work by the USA, it is no surprise that there seem to be no test items that relate to topics such as the theory of evolution, human reproduction, sexual minorities or sexually transmitted diseases. If such a science curriculum is used to define 'benchmarks', it may lead to a narrow conception of relevance, and hence to a lowering of standards, rather than, as intended, the opposite.

Scientific and technological illiteracy and the Public Understanding of Science?

Projects like TIMSS and PISA describe the levels of achievement of children of school age. However, there is a comparable political concern about how the general public relates to science. The concern has many dimensions. These include the nature and level of public scientific and technological knowledge, attitudes and interests, and, of course, the degree of public support for scientific and technological research and the community that undertakes it. 

 

Acronyms like PUST (Public Understanding of Science and Technology) have become indicators of growing unease about the situation. Academic journals are devoted to the relevant issues (e.g., Public Understanding of Science) and several research institutions study the challenges involved in promoting the public understanding of science. Phrases like 'scientific illiteracy' are also used, more or less fruitfully, to describe the situation. There is a rich literature in the field, and this is marked by the many, and often conflicting, meanings of some of the terms used. This position has been well reviewed and analysed by Jenkins (1997).

 

In a series of studies dating back to the 1970s, Miller defined and measured scientific literacy in the United States (e.g., Millar 1983), and his approach is evident in research subsequently undertaken in this field in many other countries. See, for example, the influential Eurobarometer studies (e.g., EU 2001).

 

A key research institute in this field is the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy (ICASL) in the USA. With support from the National Science Foundation, this regularly undertakes and publishes surveys of public scientific literacy, as well as of public attitudes to science and technology. There is also international participation in some of these surveys. The Center presents itself the following way:

 

Not more than 7 percent of Americans qualify as scientifically literate by relatively lenient standards. Recognizing this serious problem, governments in most industrialized nations are making concerted efforts to address the issue of pervasive illiteracy. (From ICASL presentation at the home page http://www.icasl.org/ )

 

Such studies and conclusions are open to several sorts of criticism (Jenkins, 1994, 1997). The questions asked in these studies are often derived directly from academic science so that lay persons are asked to provide answers to questions such as ‘How many planets are there around the Sun?’ and ‘Which is the larger, an atom or an electron?’ The studies can also be seen as attempts by the scientific community to promote its own agenda and interests, by lamenting the level of public understanding of science. Further, given the strong domination by the USA among the organisers of large-scale comparative studies, these seldom accommodate cultural or social differences in the context within which the alleged scientific and technological literacy is presumed to be required.

 

Several researchers have taken a different approach to the public understanding of science, and investigated 'scientific knowledge in action', i.e., the use made of it in real-life situations (see, for example, Irwin and Wynne 1996; Layton et al. 1993) Such studies provide a very different understanding of what constitutes 'the problem' and how it might be addressed.

 

In spite of the criticism indicated here, reports like the bi-annual Science and Engineering Indicators (NSB 2000) provide a wealth of information on many aspects of scientific and technological research in society and education. Although these studies are North American, the large volumes (more than 500 pages) include an important comparative perspective. Reports such as the 2000 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (at http://2000survey.horizon-research.com/) also provide valuable data as well as analysis and comparative insights. Based upon almost six thousand participating science and mathematics teachers in schools across the United States, the study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

 

Statistical data and most surveys, however, do not shed much light on the underlying causes of many of the present educational concerns. Why have science and technology apparently lost their attraction for many young people, and what might be done to remedy this situation? Without some answers to these questions, intervention programmes designed to increase interest in science and technology are unlikely to succeed.

Disenchantment with S&T? 13 possible reasons….

It is not easy to understand what causes the difficulties in recruitment to scientific and technological studies, or the more specific, related problems such as the gender gap. Reasons for the doubt in, and dissatisfaction with, contemporary science and technology have to be sought in the youth culture and in society at large. The decline in recruitment must be understood as a social and political phenomenon found in many, although not all, highly industrialised countries, but very seldom in less developed countries. This means that the current situation can hardly be explained fully by events or reforms in each individual country. It is necessary to look for more general trends that are common to different countries. The following is an attempt to suggest underlying reasons for the present difficulties, from the perspective of a European country. The listing is tentative, and it needs critical scrutiny and modification in each country. The first point refers to schools, the other are related to wider social trends.

 

  1. Outdated and irrelevant curricula
    Many studies show that pupils perceive school science as lacking relevance. It is often described as dull, authoritarian, abstract and theoretical. The curriculum is often overcrowded with unfamiliar concepts and laws. It leaves little room for enjoyment, curiosity and a search for personal meaning and significance. It often lacks a cultural, social or historical dimension, and it seldom treats the contemporary issues related to science and technology.

 

  1. Science: difficult and unfashionable?
    Scientific knowledge is by its nature abstract and theoretical and it often contradicts 'common sense' (see, e.g., Wolpert 1993). It is also often developed through controlled experiments in artificial and 'unnatural' and idealized laboratory settings. Learning science therefore often requires hard work and considerable intellectual effort, although there is little doubt that school science could, and should, be better tailored to meet the needs and abilities of pupils. Concentration and sustained hard work do not seem to be a dominant feature of contemporary youth culture. In a world where so many 'channels' compete for the attention of young people, subjects such as science and technology are readily perceived as unfashionable.

  2. A lack of qualified teachers
    Science and technology are often poorly treated in the preparation of teachers of children of primary school age. Moreover, those students who choose to become primary school teachers are often those who did not study, or did not like, science themselves in school. The present decline in recruitment of science teachers in many countries is particularly evident in secondary schools. In part, it can be attributed to a general decline in teachers’ status and relative salary, found in a number of countries. The rather low number of students with scientific backgrounds are able to find more tempting and better paid jobs than teaching. In addition, the teaching profession is becoming increasingly female, especially at the primary level (For data, see, e.g., OECD 2001b and UNESCO 2000).

  3. Anti- and quasi-scientific trends and 'alternatives'
    In many western countries, there is an upsurge of 'alternative' beliefs in the metaphysical, spiritual and supernatural. These movements are often collected under the label of 'New Age', and they comprise a rich variety of world-views, practices and therapies. They include beliefs in UFOs, astrology and several forms of healing. A common denominator is often the rejection of scientific rationality, which is often characterised pejoratively as mechanistic and/or reductionist. Although most 'alternatives' reject science, some, however, base their ideas on misinterpretations of ideas taken from modern science, like the uncertainty principle and other elements of quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity and the more recent chaos theory.

 

  1. Postmodernist attacks on science and technology
    These may be seen as the more substantial and academic version of the critique embedded in the 'alternative' movements referred to above. Many postmodernist thinkers reject some of the basic elements of modern science, including its basic epistemological and ontological tenets. In particular, they reject notions like objectivity and rationality. More extreme versions of postmodernism assert that scientific knowledge claims say more about the researcher than about reality, and that all other 'stories' about the world can be accorded the same epistemological status. In this tradition, notions like 'reality' or 'truth' are seldom used without inverted commas!
    These postmodernists' attacks on established scientific thinking have been dubbed, somewhat dramatically, the ‘Science War’. They have been met with strong counter-attacks from the scientific community. Book with titles such as The flight from science and reason (Gross et al. 1997),
    Higher Superstition (Gross and Levitt 1998), A House Built on Sand – Exposing Postmodernists Myths about Science (Koertge 1998) and Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (Sokal and Bricmont 1998) indicate the tone of the 'conflict'. Although science as knowledge or as an activity per se is unlikely to be shattered by these attacks, the ‘Science War’ creates an atmosphere of hostility and doubt that deserves to be taken seriously 

 

  1. Stereotypical image of scientists and engineers
    Many research studies reveal that the perceived image of the typical scientist and engineer is stereotypical and problematic. Portrayed in cartoons, nurtured by some sections of the media and serving the plot of many popular films and plays, the image of the ‘crazy scientist’ is commonplace. Scientists, especially those working in the mathematically demanding, physical sciences, are perceived by pupils as authoritarian and boring, having narrow and closed minds, and somewhat crazy. They are not perceived to be kind or helpful and as working to solve the problems of humankind. It is interesting to note, however, that this somewhat negative image of scientists is found only in the developed and rich countries. Young people in developing countries perceive science and technology as the key to progress and development, and the people working in these areas are correspondingly regarded as heroes and helpers. Cross-cultural evidence from drawings and free writing on such issues are presented in Sjøberg (2000, 2002).

  2. Disagreement among researchers perceived as problematic
    Scientists disagree about and debate many contemporary socio-scientific issues, e.g., the causes of global warming, the effects of radiation, the possible dangers of genetically modified food. Such discussions are part of the normal processes involved in the healthy development of new scientific knowledge and many argue that this open debate, this ‘science in the making’ is the hallmark of the scientific endeavour (Latour 1987). In recent years, debate about scientific, technological and socio-scientific/technological issues have become the staple of the mass media, rather than, as hitherto, being confined to the professional research journals and academic conferences. Vigorous debate and disagreement in public may, however, confuse and disappoint those whose acquaintance is limited to the certainties of school science, where scientific knowledge is presented, especially in textbooks, as secure and never as controversial or contested.

 

  1. Problematic values and ethos of science
    The traditional values of science are meant to safeguard objectivity, neutrality, disinterestedness and rationality. These and other values of science were described by the sociologist Merton (1942) who coined the acronym CUDOS to represent them. (CUDOS: Communalism; Universalism, Disinterestedness, Originality and Scepticism.) They have since come to be seen as the core ethos of science. Taken to the extreme, however, these values may seem to justify an absence of ethical considerations and a lack of empathy with, and concern for, the social implications of science. The search for universal laws and theories may encourage an image of science as abstract and unrelated to, and disconnected from, human needs and concerns. In these circumstances, science comes to be perceived as ‘cold’, uncaring and lacking a human face.

    Ziman (2000) has commented upon on the issue of values and ethics in science. He describes how recent developments in the development of science have put even the traditional academic ethos under stress. He calls this new contemporary science 'post-academic science', and he urges the scientific community to become more ethically involved than ever before (Ziman 1998).

 

  1. Dislike of an over ambitious science ?
    The achievements of science may call for admiration, but some also prompt also unease, as exemplified in the quotation above from the historian Eric Hobsbawm (1995). Many people dislike the image and ambitions of modern biotechnology and have an emotional and irrational fear about scientists who are 'tampering with Nature' or 'Playing God'. They dislike the notion that individual men and women can be seen merely as instruments for the survival of their genes, as suggested by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (Dawkins 1989). They are suspicious of what they read about the mapping of all the human genes through Human Genome Project and they fear the 'progress' relating to cloning and gene manipulation.

    Similarly, many people react emotionally when physicists talk about their quest for 'The Final Theory', also called 'The Theory of Everything', or even the search for 'The God Particle' (the title of a book by Nobel laureate Leon Lederman). So while the high ambitions and great achievements of modern science may attract some young people, they are likely to scare others. For some, science is also seen as intruding into areas that are to be considered sacred and the notion that, in principle, science can explain everything is unwelcome. Others like to think of the natural world  (‘Nature’) as sacred and mystical, rather than as explainable, controllable and rational. An avoidance of science may thus in fact be a deliberate choice of values and therefore not something that may be remedied by simply providing more information, especially by the scientists.

  2. The new image: Big Science and techno-science
    Science used to be seen a search for knowledge driven by individual intellectual curiosity, and, historically, scientists have been rightfully described as radicals and revolutionaries who often challenged religious and political authority. Contemporary science is different in a number of fundamental ways. Recent decades have brought a fusion of science and technology into what is called techno-science or ‘Big science’. The work of NASA and CERN, and the Human Genome Project are examples. Today’s scientists and engineers often work to serve national, industrial or military interests. The historical shift of scientists from being radical, anti-authoritarian rebels to loyal workers on the payroll of industry, the military or the state can be over-drawn but it is real and had been well described by Hobsbawm (1995 pp. 522-557). The earlier image of the scientist as a dissident or rebel has been replaced with a less exotic image of a worker loyally serving those in power and authority. The previously privileged perception of the scientist as neutral defenders of objectivity and truth is increasingly questioned by the media, by many scholars (e.g. Ziman 1997), and by pupils in schools.

  3. Scientists and engineers: No longer heroes?
    Not very long ago, scientists and engineers were considered heroes. The scientists produced progressive knowledge and fought superstition and ignorance, the engineers developed new technologies and products that improved the quality of life. This image is, however, now the stuff of history, at least in the more developed countries. For many young people in these prosperous, modern societies, the fight for better health and a better material standard is an unknown history of the past. The present generally high standards of living are taken for granted, rather than understood as fundamentally dependent on advances in science and technology. The fruits of science and technology are there for all to buy off the shelf. What attracts the attention of these young people are often the present evils of environmental degradation, pollution or global warming. The triumphs of the past are set aside in the readiness to blame science and technology for many of the serious problems of the present.

 

  1. The new role models: Not in science and technology
    We live in an intellectual, cultural and social world that is in part created by the media. Football players, film stars and pop artists receive global publicity and earn fortunes. The lives of journalists and others working in the media seem interesting and challenging. Although few young people enter these careers, the new role models on either side of the camera create new ideals. Young people also know that lawyers and some of those trading in the financial markets earn ten or a hundred times more money than the physicist in the laboratory. They also know that a lack of knowledge of physics or mathematics is unlikely to hinder those who pursue such careers, although a judge in court is often asked to consider evidence based on scientific arguments and/or statistical inferences.

    A white-coated, hardworking and not very well paid scientist in a laboratory is thus not a role model for many of today’s young people. The social climate, especially in developed countries, is not one which it is easy to convince young people that they should concentrate on learning science at school or beyond.

 

  1. A communication gap between scientists and the 'public'?
    The scientific and technological establishment is often confused and annoyed when confronted with criticism, especially when, historically, it has enjoyed prestige and generous finance and experienced few problems in recruitment. Confronted with public distrust and scepticism, the need now is to justify scientific and technological research and development in public forums. The immediate reaction to this new situation is the search for scapegoats, and too often these are found in the schools and in the media.

    The fundamental difficulty is often perceived by the scientific and technological establishment as a lack of information. Criticism and scepticism are often seen as derived from  'misunderstandings' and/or a lack of knowledge on the part of the public. In some instances, this may of course be the case, but, more generally, there is a need for a greater degree of self-criticism within the scientific and technological community, allied with an awareness that communication is a two-way process.
     

At least some of the 13 points above may have some validity as explanations for the current disenchantment with science and technology, although the weight to be attached each will, of course, vary between countries. Also, while it is a relatively straightforward matter to address some of the points, others are more deep-rooted and lie outside the direct influence of political decisions.

Contradictory (and optimistic) trends?

 It is evident from the points raised above that the issues surrounding recruitment to science and technology are many and varied. Some of the recent trends are also contradictory. A falling enrolment seems to suggest a decline in interest in science and technology. This, however, is the case only if enrolment in science and technology education is taken as the sole indicator of interest in these fields. Other indicators give other messages.

 

For instance, young people in many countries are more interested than ever in using many kinds of new technology. It is a paradox that the countries that have the most problems with recruitment to scientific and technological studies and careers are precisely those with the most widespread use of new technologies by young people. Examples include cellular telephones, personal computers and the Internet. There seems to be an eagerness to use the new technologies, but a reluctance to study the disciplines that underlie them.

 

Popular science and technology magazines have also retained their popularity in many countries, and television programmes about science, the environment and technology continue to attract large audiences. Furthermore, survey data for the member countries of the EU (often including some other countries), such as the ongoing series of Eurobarometer surveys, do not give support to general claims about falling interest in, and negative attitudes towards, science and technology. Indeed, to the contrary, these studies indicate a high level of public interest in scientific and technological research and a high level of acceptance of such research as a national priority (EU 2001). The Eurobarometer studies also document that doctors, scientists and engineers have high esteem, much above that enjoyed by lawyers, 'businessmen', journalists, and politicians (EU 2001).

 

Scientific and technological skill and knowledge are acquired and developed in many different contexts, and not simply in formal settings like schools. The media, museums of various kinds, the workplace and even 'everyday life' provide other learning contexts. Most of the impressive skills that young people have in handling personal computers, the Internet, cellular phones and all sorts of electronic devices are acquired in informal out-of-school settings. When the Eurobarometer asked members of the public where they had acquired their scientific knowledge, television, the press and the radio featured much more prominently than either schools or universities (EU 2001, p.13).

 

Young people have often developed more advanced skills in information and communication technology than their teachers at school, even though their understanding of the underlying physical principles may be totally lacking. Young people, as well as many who are older, demonstrate an impressive ability to learn and acquire new skills that they deem to be of relevance to their daily life. Educational authorities might learn important lessons from these areas of learning, seeking to support them while avoiding gender, economic, social or other inequalities in access. Likewise, teachers in schools might well utilize the skills and the knowledge of the young in new and inventive ways.

An international concern…

 The growing importance, but increasingly problematic, enrolment in, and status of, science and technology in many countries, provides the obvious background to a growing political concern about science and technology education in schools, higher education, media and the public.

 

In many countries, the situation has attracted political attention at the highest level, and, in some cases, projects and counter-measures are planned or put in operation. The Swedish NOT-project (http://www.hsv.se/NOT/) and the Portuguese Ciencia Viva (http://www.ucv.mct.pt/) are examples of large-scale national programmes. Some of these programmes have also initiated research and prompted discussion and other efforts directed at improving understanding of the dimensions of the problem.

 

Institutes of scientific and technological research, universities and industrial organizations have also established more or less coordinated intervention programmes. Organisations concerned with ‘Big science' have also become involved. A prime example is the project Physics On Stage (POS http://www.estec.esa.nl/outreach/pos/), organized jointly by CERN (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics), ESA (the European Space Agency) and ESO (the European Southern Observatory). POS, as well as many other such intervention programmes by professional bodies, have seldom undertaken a convincing analysis as to why they are facing the problems of falling enrolment. Some of their descriptions of the situation lack empirical evidence, and are more emotional than rational. Many institutions seem to be driven by nothing more than a need to 'do something' about the situation.

 

From the available studies in the field, it also seems premature to claim that the public understanding of science and technology is deteriorating, although such claims are often voiced from interests groups on behalf of the scientific and technological establishment. One could, however, argue that the public understanding of science and technology needs to be much better than it is, given the crucial role they play in contemporary society. General claims about falling standards, however, do not seem to be justified.

Who needs Science and Technology – and Why?

The problems surrounding recruitment to scientific and technological subjects can be viewed from several different perspectives. These range from industrial and governmental anxiety about national, economic competitiveness to concerns about empowerment at the grassroots level to protect and conserve the natural environment. Different conceptions of the recruitment ‘crisis’ point towards different solutions, and, as indicated below, there is a range of stakeholders, each with a somewhat different argument to present.

 

Industry needs people with a high level of qualification in science and technology. Modern industry is high-tech, and it is often referred to as a 'knowledge industry'. The need here is for highly qualified scientists and engineers for survival in a competitive global economy. While such survival is also a matter of national economic well-being, young people will not base their educational choices on what is good for the nation.

 

Universities and research institutions have a similar need for researchers (and teachers) to maintain research at a high international level and to train future generations of experts, researchers and teachers.

 

Industry, universities and other research based organisations thus need to recruit a highly skilled élite. However, the size of that élite may be quite modest, even in a highly industrialised society, and it would be a mistake to have this group principally in mind when reforming science and technology education within schools. A policy based mainly on the needs of this élite could decrease even further the proportion of young people interested in school science and technology interesting, and who wish to continue their studies in these fields.:

 

Schools need large numbers of well-qualified teachers but many countries face a problem of both quality and quantity in recruiting to the profession. Well-qualified and enthusiastic teachers are the key to any improvement in the teaching of science and technology in schools, not least in laying the foundations for the future development of the knowledge, interests and attitudes of ordinary citizens once they have left school. Science and technology teachers are also influential in recruiting people to the science and technological sectors of employment.


The long-term effects of a shortage of good science and technology teachers can be very damaging, although they may not be so immediately evident as a comparable shortage in industry and research. Teachers of science or technology need a broad education:- a solid foundation in the relevant academic discipline(s) is important, but it is not enough. They need broader perspectives and skills in order to cope with the kinds of challenges set out earlier in this chapter. In particular, they need not only a foundation in the scientific or technological disciplines, but also an understanding that places these disciplines in their historical and social contexts. Achieving this is likely to require significant reforms in teacher training. 

 

A modern labour market requires people with qualifications in science and technology. This need is great and growing fast, as knowledge and skills based on science and technology become prerequisites for employment in new or emerging sectors of the labour market. It is not only doctors, pharmacists, engineers and technicians who need a scientific or technological education. For example, health workers handle complicated and dangerous equipment and secretaries and office staff need good computer literacy. Likewise, lawyers and juries in court trials have to understand and critically judge evidence and statistical arguments in which knowledge of science and considerations of probability and chance play an increasing role.

 
New, as well as more traditional, technologies often dominate the workplace, and those with skills in these areas may have a competitive advantage in securing employment or promotion.  Many countries have also identified a need for people with scientific or technological skills to replace those retiring in the near future. Beyond this, the general need is for a workforce that is flexible, willing to learn new skills, and able to respond positively to ongoing change. A good grounding in science, technology and mathematics is important here since many innovations are likely to be derived from scientific and technological research and development.

Science and technology education are required for participation as a citizen in a democracy. Modern society is dominated by science and technology, and citizens, acting as consumers and voters, are confronted with a range of science- and technology-related issues. As consumers, we have to take decisions about food and health, the quality and characteristics of products, the claims made in advertisements, etc. As voters, we have to take a stand and be able to judge arguments related to a wide variety of issues. Many of these political issues also have a scientific and/or technological dimension. In such cases, a knowledge of the relevant science or technology has to be combined with values and political ideals. Issues relating to the environment are obviously of this nature, but so, too, are issues relating to a wide range of other matters, including energy, traffic and health policy. It is important that social and political issues should not be seen as 'technical', and thus be left in the hands of  'experts'. A broad public understanding of science and technology is an important democratic safeguard against 'scientism' and the domination of experts.

The above 'democratic argument' for scientific and technological education assumes that people have some understanding both of scientific and technological concepts and principles and of the nature of science and technology and the role they play in society. Among much else, people need to know that scientific knowledge is based on argumentation and evidence, and that statistical considerations about risks play an important role in establishing conclusions. In short, while everyone cannot become an expert, everyone should have the intellectual tools to be able to judge which expert, and what kind of arguments, one should trust.

A note of caution, however, is appropriate. Addressing the problem of recruiting of potential Nobel Prize winners and researchers to work at CERN or elsewhere may require quite a different educational strategy from that needed to promote a broad public understanding of science or the protection of wildlife and other natural resources. If so, the challenge is to combine these different concerns and strategies within a flexible education system that also accommodates the notion of life-long learning. The following questions indicate some of the choices that have to be made.

 

·             Should one favour early specialisation, identification and recruitment of the more able?

·             To what extent and to what age should one have a comprehensive system for all – or choose streaming and selection?

·             Should one maximize individual freedom for pupils to choose according to interests and abilities – or should one postpone choices and hold on to a core curriculum of important contents to be covered by all?

·             How should one support 'life long education' and develop adult education and on-the-job-training? 

 

 

Science and technology in schools

Present curricula – the critique

Science curricula are key factors in developing and sustaining pupils’ interest in science. There seems to be a broad agreement about the shortcomings of traditional curricula that still prevail in most countries.

 

The implicit image of science conveyed by these curricula is that it is mainly a massive body of authoritative and unquestionable knowledge. Most curricula and textbooks are overloaded with facts and information at the expense of concentration on a few 'big ideas' and key principles. There seems to be an attempt to cover most, if not all, parts of established academic science, without any justification for teaching this material in schools that cater for the whole age cohort. Many new words and 'exotic' concepts are introduced on every page of most textbooks. Although very few pupils will pursue further studies in science, preparation for such studies seems to be a guiding curriculum principle. There is often repetition, with the same concepts and laws presented year after year. Such curricula and textbooks often lead to rote learning without any deeper understanding so that, unsurprisingly, many pupils become bored and develop a lasting aversion to science.

 

Moreover, this textbook science is often criticized for its lack of relevance and deeper meaning for the learners and their daily life. The content is frequently presented without being related to social and human needs, either present or past, and the historical context of discoveries is reduced to biographical anecdotes. Moreover, the implicit philosophy of textbook science is considered by most scholars to be a simplistic and outdated form of empiricism.

 

It should also be noted (as in point 2 in the previous listing) that science is often seen by students as demanding and difficult. Scientific ideas are not always easy to grasp, and their understanding sometimes requires concentration and hard work over a long period of time. Many young people today in technologically advanced countries do not readily make the commitment necessary to learn science. If they are to make that commitment, pupils will need to be strongly motivated and sense that they are learning something worthwhile, interesting and valuable to them. This does not often seem to be the case. Although science per se can be seen as difficult, the demands of school science can, of course, be adopted to suit the age of the learners.

 

When pupils have a choice, the science curriculum has to compete for popularity and attention with other school subjects. Many of these subjects have qualities that meet the students' needs for meaning and relevance. The content of such subjects is less authoritarian, and it is easier to accommodate the opinions and feelings of the learners. This is seldom the case in school science as it is presently taught. The situation was well captured in a headline in the Financial Times some years ago:- ‘Science attracts fewer candidates. Students switch to newer subjects thought to be more interesting and less demanding’ (15th August 1996).

 

If scientific and technological education are to meet the needs of the learner and be seen as relevant and meaningful, it is important to know what the learners themselves find interesting and challenging. A number of research projects have tried to map these interests and challenges. Box 2 below contains a brief description of one such project, entitled Science and Scientists (SAS) which explores various aspects of relevance in the teaching and learning of science and technology.

 

Box 2 The priorities of the learners?

The SAS-study (Science And Scientists) explores various aspects of relevance to the teaching and learning of S&T Some 40 researchers from 21 countries have collected data from about 10 000 pupils at the age of 13. The countries are, in alphabetical order: Australia, Chile, England, Ghana, Hungary, Iceland, India, Japan, Korea, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nigeria, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Russia, Spain, Sudan, Sweden, Trinidad, Uganda and USA.

 

The purpose of the study is to provide an empirical input to debates over priorities in the school curriculum as well as the pedagogies that are likely to appeal to the learners. The SAS-study is presented elsewhere (e.g. Sjøberg 2000 and 2002), but here are some of results that relate to interesting topics in the science curriculum. (One of the 7 items in the SAS-study). The questionnaire contains an inventory of 60 possible topics for inclusion in the S&T curriculum, and the children simply mark the ones they would like to learn more about.

 

Children in developing countries are interested in learning about nearly everything! This is possibly a reflection of the fact that for them, education is a luxury and a privilege, and not seen as a painful duty, as is often the case in more wealthy nations!

 

Some of the results are hardly surprising; they actually fit well with what one stereotypically calls girls' and boys' interests. The surprise is, however, that the actual difference is so extreme. Take learning about "The car and how it works" as an example. In Norway, 76 % of the boys and 33 % of the girls are interested. Japan is even more extreme, although the actual numbers are much smaller: 36 % of the boys, and only 6 % of the girls are interested! The results for the car-producing Sweden may cause some concern: 83 % of the boys and only 32 % of the girls want to learn about the car. No country has such a large difference between girls and boys on this particular item. In spite of the great gender disparities, some topics seem to be high on the list for girls as well as boys in most countries. Here is an indication:

Most popular among girls and boys in most countries are the following topics:

·             The possibility of life outside earth

·             Computers, PC, and what we can do with them

·             Dinosaurs and why they died out

·             Earthquakes and volcanoes

·             Music, instruments and sounds

·             The moon, the sun and the planets

 

Similarly, one can identify a list of the least popular (for girls and boys) in most (mainly the rich) countries:

·             How to improve the harvest in gardens and farms

·             How plants grow and what they need

·             Plants and animals in my neighbourhood,

·             Detergents, soap and how they work

·             Food processing, conservation and storage

·             Famous scientists and their lives

 

From this list we see that the concern to make S&T more relevant by concentrating on what is "concrete, near and familiar" is not necessarily meeting the interests of the children. They may, in fact, be more interested in learning about the possibility of life in the universe, extinct dinosaurs, planets, earthquakes and volcanoes!

 

 

One important result of the SAS-study is that to build on the interests and experiences of the learner, it may be necessary to abandon the notion of a common, more or less universal, science curriculum, in favour of curricula and teaching materials that are more context-bound and take into account both gender and cultural diversity.

Plans for a more systematic follow-up study to the SAS-project have been developed under the acronym of ROSE: The Relevance Of Science Education. (The T for Technology does not appear in the acronym, but will be a key concern.) The target population will be 15 year old pupils, i.e. those towards the end of the compulsory school in many countries, and before streaming usually takes place. (A description of the project is given at http://folk.uio.no/sveinsj/) Researchers and research institutions in more than thirty countries have expressed their interest in participating in this project.

Science and Technology  in schools – recent trends and responses

 The challenges facing science and technology education outlined above have been met in different ways. Many countries have introduced more or less radical reforms, and there has been support for curriculum development and experiment. The reforms have been directed at both the content and framing of the curriculum and at pedagogy, i.e., at teaching methods and the organisation of the learning processes.

 

There seems to be something of general weakening of the traditional academic influence on the organisation of the school curriculum and it content. An underlying concern, when ‘everyone’ attends school for 12-13 years, is that science and technology should contribute to the more general aims of schooling. The tendency, therefore, is to gradually redefine what counts as valid school science by broadening the perspective to give attention to some of the social and ethical aspects of science and technology. Some of the trends are discussed briefly below. Although listed separately, many are related and not all are found in all countries, but, collectively, they paint a picture of discernible change.

 

  1. Towards ‘Science for all’
    More emphasis is being given to those aspects of science that can be seen as contributing to the overall goals of schooling. The key notion is that of liberal education (allmenn dannelse, allmänn Bildning, Bildung, Formation, etc). Less importance is attached to the traditional academic content of school science and to school science as a preparation for more advanced studies. Specialisation is postponed to the last few years of schooling.

 

  1. Towards more subject integration
    In the early years of schooling, science and technology are often more or less integrated with other school subjects. Only later are the sciences presented as separate disciplines. The level at which this specialisation begins varies between countries. In general, the separate science subjects are taught only at the later stages of schooling. In Norway, for example, this occurs only in the two last years of the upper secondary school.

  2. Widening perspectives
    More attention is being given to the cultural, historical and philosophical aspects of science and technology in an attempt to portray these as human activities. This increased attention may enhance the appeal of these subjects to those pupils who are searching for some 'meaning' to their studies, rather than the acquisition of factual information and established, orthodox explanations of natural phenomena. 

  3. NOS: The Nature of Science
    The 'nature of science' has become an important concern in the curriculum. This often means a rejection of the stereotypical and false image of science as a simple search for objective and final truths based on unproblematic observations. The recent emphasis on understanding of the nature of science is inevitably related to the attempt to give more attention to its social, cultural and human aspects. Science is now to be presented as knowledge that is built on evidence as well upon arguments deployed in a creative search for meaning and explanation.

 

  1. Context becomes important
    Increasing attention is being given to presenting science and technology in contexts that have meaning and relevance for the learner. Themes or topics that illustrate scientific or technological principles are drawn from everyday life or current socio-scientific issues. These themes or topics are often by their nature interdisciplinary, and teaching them requires collaboration between teachers with expertise in different disciplines. In many cases, a project approach to learning is appropriate, although many teachers require to be trained to work in this way.

  2. Concern for the environment
    Environmental questions are increasingly forming part of school science and technology curricula. In the new Norwegian curriculum, for example, this is even reflected in the name of the relevant subject which is called ‘Science and Environmental Study’. Environmental concerns often embrace socio-scientific issues, the treatment of which also frequently requires project work undertaken in an interdisciplinary setting.

  3. An Emphasis on Technology
    Technology has recently been introduced in many countries as a subject in its own right or as an integral component of general education (as in Sweden). In other countries, it has received found accommodation within the science curriculum, although not simply as a source of interesting examples invoked to illustrate scientific theories or principles. In Denmark, for example, the name of the relevant new subject is ‘Nature and technology’.
    As a curriculum component, however, 'technology' is often confusing and incoherent. In some countries, technology is placed in the context of 'design and technology' (as in England and Wales). In other countries, the term technology implies modern information technology and ICT. Moreover, in some places the stress is on the technical (and underlying scientific) aspects of technology while, in others, emphasis is placed on the interactions of science, technology and society.
    Attention to technology, utility and practical examples is often used to build confidence in the children since, through technology, they can come to understand that science and technology are not just about knowing but also about doing and making thing work.

  4. STS:- Science, Technology and Society
    STS has become an acronym for a whole international 'movement' within science and technology education (see, e.g., Solomon and Aikenhead, 1994). The key concern is not only scientific and technological content, but also the relationships between science, technology and society. The trends described above, notably the relevance of context, increased attention to environmental concerns and the role of technology, are fundamental to the STS approach.

  5. Attention to ethics
    When scientific and technological issues are treated in a wider context, it becomes evident that many of the topics have ethical dimensions. This is most obviously the case when dealing with socio-scientific issues, but ethical questions are also involved in discussions relating to so-called 'pure' science, e.g., what sorts of research ought to be prioritised (or even allowed) and how far is it legitimate to use animals in research? Attention to ethical issues may give science and technology a more human ‘face’ and it is also likely to empower future voters with respect to important political issues on which they are invited to take a stand.

  6. Less is more
    ‘Less is more’ has become a slogan for curriculum development in a number of countries. More attention is given to the 'great stories' of science and technology and to presentation of key ideas and their development, often in an historical and social context. These key ideas replace (the impossible) attempt to present pupils with an encyclopaedic coverage of the whole of science. By adopting this so-called narrative approach, it is hoped to convey an understanding of the nature of science and technology, to nourish pupils’ curiosity about, and respect for, work in these fields, and to avoid the curse of an overcrowded curriculum that currently leaves so little time for reflection and the search for meaning.

  7. Information technologies as subject matter and as tools
    Information and communication technologies (ICT) are products that are clearly associated with science and technology, not least because the 'hardware' consists of science-based technologies and the 'software' relies upon basic mathematics. As a result, the underlying physical and technical ideas are to an increasing extent treated as important and distinct components of school science and technology curricula. 
    However, ICT also provides new tools that can be used in teaching science and technology. The whole range of conventional software is used, including databases, spreadsheets, statistical and graphical programs. In addition, modelling, visualization and the simulation of processes are important. ICT is also used for taking time series of measurements of a wide variety of parameters ('data logging').
    Science and technology are likely to be key elements of strategies to develop ICT as a resource for promoting teaching and learning. It is also likely that science and technology teachers are better equipped, by virtue of their training, for this task than many of their colleagues, although they, too, are likely to need to have their skills brought up-to-date by means of suitable training programmes.

Ways forward?

The preceding paragraphs make clear that the challenges facing contemporary science and technology education are multi-faceted. In addition, those challenges, and the strategies for overcoming them, are perceived differently by the different groups with a legitimate interest in science and technology education. The perspectives of industrial leaders are often different from those of environmental activists. It has also been argued in this chapter that the problems related to interest in, and attitudes towards, science and technology cannot be regarded as solely educational but need to be understood and addressed in a wider social, cultural and political context. As a consequence, the range of possible ‘solutions’ may be as large and diverse as the ways in which the problem is framed.

Despite this, it is possible to recognise some degree of broad agreement about the reforms that need to be undertaken. Agreement can be reached, for example, about the need to stimulate and maintain young children’s curiosity about natural phenomena and how things work. There can also be agreement that everybody would benefit from a broad knowledge of key ideas and basic principles in science and technology and an understanding and appreciation of the key roles played by science and technology in contemporary society. Knowledge and appreciation of scientific theories and ideas as major cultural products of humankind also probably also constitute an uncontroversial curriculum goal. This list could be continued, but these examples indicate that it should be possible for different groups to work together to achieve what is often called ‘scientific and technological literacy’.

 

Other issues are necessarily more controversial. How critical a stance should science and technology education adopt towards the involvement of science and technology with the authority of the state, with ‘sensitive’ military or industrial research, or with political activism?  How far should one should permit, or even stimulate, early selection and specialization in order to identify and recruit talented students for advanced scientific and technological studies? It is the difficult task of educational and political authorities to balance often contradictory concerns, and, of course, to stimulate public debate about them.

 

Finally, if it is accepted that the problems of recruitment to, and attitudes toward, science and technology are deeply embedded in a wider social context, then those problems cannot be solved simply by reforming schools, teacher training institutions, universities or their curricula. Precisely because they are so deeply embedded, they are not amenable to easy one-off solutions. The need is for reforms that are context specific, embrace multiple approaches and are implemented over long periods of time. Initiatives will also have to be monitored, and their development and outcomes subjected to on-going evaluation that is informed by evidence and careful analysis.

 

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[1]   This chapter is based on an invited contribution to Meeting of Ministers of Education and Research in the European Union held in Uppsala, Sweden 1-3 March 2001

[2]  Science and technology are different, but related as forms of knowledge and as forms of activities. Science is concerned about developing general and universal explanations of reality; technology is concerned about finding workable solutions to practical problems. Technology is not the same as applied science, and scientific understanding does not always precede technological developments. In spite of the differences, the acronym S&T will be used in the following.

 

[3]  The term 'liberal education' is here used as synonymous with the concept of Bildung (used in e.g., German and Swedish), formation used in e.g. French, dannelse (used in Danish and Norwegian) etc.