Surveys of attitudes towards science in European schools confirm that interest in the subject is on the wane and that pre- and early school teachers are reluctant to teach it as it becomes increasingly more complex. Three physicists in France took this as a sign to act and decided to set up Le main à la pâte (Learning by doing) five years ago.
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In the July-September edition of World of Science, the United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) showcases the special efforts of George Charpak, Nobel Laureate in Physics (1992), Pierre Léna and Yves Quéré, who built on an idea for inquiry-based science teaching and exported it to such places as Afghanistan, Brazil, Egypt, Senegal and elsewhere.
Le main à la pâte applies ten guiding principles focused mainly on learner-centred, hands-on experimentation that has meaning to the pupils, and community and family participation in the process. This method does not ignore teacher-centred, rote learning styles which, according to its founders, still play a role in education.
‘Learning by Doing' provides a strong foundation which takes pupils by the hand and leads them on a “voyage of discovery”, stimulating imagination and the ability to reason along the way.
Using this approach, say its proponents, improves other faculties as well, including language ability, manual dexterity in carrying out experiments and an appreciation of the virtues of teamwork. For instance, young students learn what ‘rhythm' is through a simple experiment with a swinging pendulum. To help them understand oscillation and motion, they are asked to think about why the pendulum moves at different speeds. No, it is not because of the thickness of the string, they are told, nor the initial force used to swing it, but it is because of the length of the pendulum.
The internet has also expanded the scope of hands-on style of science teaching, making it more interactive and lively, the article continues. In addition, thanks to modern information communications technology, a number of Europe-wide scientific activities have been launched, under the ‘Learning by Doing' banner, which involve schools from different countries simultaneously. This is not dissimilar to the EU's European Science Week, part of the Sixth Framework Programme's (FP6) Science and Society activities, which work on a similar principle of shared experience and having fun with science.
Also in the July edition...
The current issue of World of Science also tackles the subject of how to bring the Balkans closer to the European fold through science and cultural programmes, including tourism projects. In an interview with Howard Moore, director of UNESCO's Regional Bureau for Science in Europe (ROSTE), readers learn of the measures being implemented under the so-called Venice Process to improve regional scientific co-operation in the Balkans.
Under the title, ‘Making the European Research Area truly pan-European', Moore speaks about the changes taking place in the wake of the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia and how the Bologna Process – some 30 countries working to create a European Higher Education Area by 2010 – is helping to restructure education systems in the region. Moore explains that ROSTE is encouraging more cross-border use of research infrastructures in the region, which not only fosters co-operation but also puts these facilities to better use.
“We recognise that not everybody can have world class facilities in all disciplines... But those that do have state-of-the-art laboratories or equipment can perhaps open their doors more to their neighbours,” he said. This is also one of the basic rationales behind the Research Infrastructures programme in FP6.
For example, in 2002, ROSTE arranged for an astronomy specialist to visit facilities in Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Serbia and Montenegro, and report back on how to improve collaboration in this field. The envoy found that, with modest outside financial support, some of the facilities could be upgraded significantly allowing these countries to participate in collaborative experiments.
Asked if brain drain is a problem for this part of Europe, Moore concedes it is but laments the lack of firm data to prove it. He said flight of the talented scientists to the West is not just because of low salaries in the Balkans, but also substandard equipment, and lack of access to scientific literature and technology for exchanging information. In a related article in World of Science, readers can find out about a new GRID computing project which is targeting the brain drain problem in Southeast Europe.