Time to shake up science teaching

Why is science still seen as a boring subject by so many? Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, says that we simply have to make it more exciting

As a small boy growing up in Wembley, I was intrigued by the world around me. I remember being struck by the spider webs that I would see on my way to school. Why were they in particular places and why did they have those specific shapes? Asking questions like that seems to me to be part of growing up for most children.

Later, in secondary school, I was fortunate in having an excellent biology teacher, Keith Neil, who introduced me to developing fruit flies and fish in the classroom, and to natural history-watching badgers, identifying butterflies and beetles and thinking about ecology. Being curious about the natural world has stayed with me all my life, but why do so many young people lose interest in science as they get older? Is there something in the way we teach it that’s putting them off? My personal manifesto for science education contains five key points.

The first might seem obvious, but is sadly not always the case. Science teachers need to know their subject. In England’s secondary schools, more than 40% of physics teachers don’t have a degree in physics or an equivalent qualification.

A teacher who teaches only from a textbook, without a more direct hands on experience of science, will not engage a class in the same way as someone who has an in-depth knowledge of the subject. We need our science teachers in both secondary and primary schools to be sufficiently capable and confident in science to make it exciting.

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My second wish is that teachers need to have the freedom, within a loosely applied curriculum, to be creative in how and what they teach. To be able to do this, they need the specialist knowledge that allows them to make the less obvious links. Science is changing all the time, and we need our teachers to be able to keep up with that, so I would give them a little bit more time to keep themselves up to date and maintain their enthusiasm. The internet has opened up a huge range of possibilities in terms of sharing ideas and lesson plans. We need to make sure that the best resources make it through to the classroom in all schools.

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Thirdly, to keep science interesting, we need to be able to do it, not just read about it. I was pleased to see the recent intervention from Judith Hackitt, chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), who challenged ‘well meaning but misguided jobsworths’ to stop blaming the HSE for making science lessons uninteresting. I appreciate that it’s not always easy to keep thirty fifteen year olds focused on their experiments, but I would argue that it’s easier than keeping them focused on a textbook. Schools also need to make use of the natural laboratory just outside every classroom, and ask questions about the animals and plants they find there.

The Royal Society helps some teachers to take this one step further with our Partnership Grants scheme. We bring together scientists with schools to work on a science research project. This year, Alcester High School brought its project on finding the most efficient design for wind turbines to the annual Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, where the pupils stood shoulder to shoulder with Nobel laureates telling the public about their work.

My fourth idea is to create a system where assessment and testing are done to make sure that each young person is learning. Let’s get away from the mentality that it’s all about a school’s place in a league table. That way, both teachers and students will be a bit more liberated and might enjoy science-and perhaps other subjects, too-a bit more.

My last wish would be that schools take a broader look at science as being a central element of our culture. What about a traditional school trip to the National Space Centre in Leicester, London’s Science Museum, the Glasgow Science Centre, the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester or any of the sciencebased museums or attractions around the country?
Science is on the up in schools-the numbers of pupils taking biology, chemistry and physics have increased 5%, 10% and 13% respectively over the past five years.

This may, in part, be down to universities and employers making it clearer that the sciences are the sort of subjects that give you a better chance of a job or a place on a good degree course. That is to be welcomed, but it would be even better if more young people wanted to study science because they were fascinated by what it had to offer and thought it was fun.

Image from: www.practicalbiology.org