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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Testing time for science
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image image image Date published : 11/07/2001
  image Testing time for science
  Why are secondary school students giving up on science subjects just about everywhere in Europe? Education experts are trying to explain the reasons and come up with some solutions. Meanwhile, many teachers in the field are trying alternative methods, often based on active experimentation. Whatever the case may be, they all share the same sense of urgency.

'We have fewer and fewer maths students. Young people who are not trained in deductive reasoning are increasingly avoiding the subject. Physics is suffering even more. It is to escape physics that my students opt for maths applied to the social sciences rather than maths, computer science and scientific applications.' Mireille Chaleyat-Maurel, lecturer at the René Descartes University (Paris 5) is all too aware of the damage being done.

It is the same picture all over Europe. In Germany (enrolment in physics courses down by one half since 1991), Belgium (a 5% fall per year in civil and industrial engineering), and in France (enrolments in science subjects down by 12% since 1996), the number of students choosing to study 'hard' science subjects is steadily declining. In Great Britain the situation is causing particular concern, to the point where some are anticipating problems in replacing university staff. 'With 19 students enrolled to train as lecturers, we are the biggest group in Great Britain!' exclaims John Leach, lecturer in education sciences at Leeds University. The picture is the same in southern Europe. Pedro Pombo, who teaches physics in Portugal, notes that 'students are no longer studying maths, physics or engineering'.

A good start

Yet young children like science. That much is clear from the success of museums, after-school science clubs and all kinds of
science events. A European survey carried out in 1998, entitled Science in School and the Future of Scientific Culture, states that 'primary school children like science and are enthusiastic when they start learning it, but the enthusiasm wears off as they move through school'. So what happens? School no doubt is not the whole explanation, but science education in secondary school is often called into question. Through the many reports, studies and conferences which Europe has witnessed over recent years, teachers and education experts have identified a number of key themes.

First of all, school does not bear sole responsibility for the current state of affairs. What we are seeing in school reflects a general underlying trend. Nicolas Witkowski, a physics teacher at a French secondary school, believes that 'we are seeing a kind of backlash in the way science is perceived. There is general distrust since Challenger, Chernobyl, Bophal and BSE. The positive aspect of this social phenomenon is that the right questions are being asked directly, without the filter of scientists working for official bodies. On many subjects students know as much as their teachers.'

Back to reality

But what about the actual teaching? Katarina Teplanova, head of the Department of Education Sciences at Bratislava University (Slovakia), sums up her students' grievances: 'They find the subject matter incomprehensible and do not believe their interests are being taken into account. The teaching is too formal and the gulf between theory and reality is widening. Schools underestimate the knowledge, experience and abilities of pupils by presenting phenomena outside the real conditions in which they occur. Also, more attention is paid to marks than to knowledge.' In short: science education is too abstract, too removed from reality and places the emphasis on teaching ready-made concepts rather than stimulating individual thought and experimentation.
Then there is the question of mathematics, the real stumbling block for many (see box). This means that not only the course content must be changed - the sacrosanct curriculum - but also the way the subject is taught.

What's the point?

But there is more involved than developing new methods or adapting course content. Gérard Fourez, a social scientist at the faculty of Notre Dame de la Paix in Namur (Belgium), believes that: 'It is the very meaning of the science courses which is at stake. The world of scientists can be divided into physics, chemistry and biology, and that of young people into the environment, pollution, technology, medicine, space exploration, the history of the universe and of living creatures, etc. So do young people have the feeling that science courses help them to discover their world? Or do they feel - rightly or wrongly - that the main aim is to make them see the world the way scientists see it, without this giving them a vision of their world?' Finally, the students, most of whom will not become scientists anyway, simply ask themselves 'what's the point?'.

There is also the matter of replacing researchers, engineers and teachers. Patrick Dowling, president of the Association for Science Education - a British foundation which promotes science education and which has close links with industry - describes the group as professional scientists and wants to see them become 'involved in developing curricula and courses'. But how? Should we accept the fact that only a minority will become scientists and adapt school in line with the majority, if necessary offering extra lessons for future specialists? Some countries, such as Britain, already offer a modular system in secondary school, but far from all Europeans favour this approach. Education experts and teachers will certainly have their work cut out over the years to come. The already long-standing debate on science education is not over yet, but what has changed over recent years is that there is now a sense of real urgency.


The need for change

Whatever the system, the actual teaching must change. Everybody seems to agree on this - as is evident from the many experiments in new teaching methods being carried out all over Europe (see A different way of learning). Some want history, others experimentation, play, the illustration of links between science and society or more use of information and communication technologies (ICT). But nearly all are agreed on the importance of the experimental approach, a method favoured by Anglo-Saxon countries for 20 years or more where the emphasis is on practical experiments in the laboratory. Pendulums, micro-rockets, resonating tubes… the possibilities are endless.

The French Association Sciences, Techniques, Jeunesse (ANSTJ), which organises extra-curricular research activities, believes that 'the successive phases of observation, questioning, debate, experimentation and analysis allow young people to progressively build up their knowledge and to structure their thinking. They progress from simple contemplation to a more active and rigorous attitude, which leads to formalised knowledge.'

Nevertheless, some voices are being raised to dampen their enthusiasm. 'The use of experimentation seems essential at primary school, but teachers are under an illusion about the value of experiments in secondary school,' believes Nicolas Witkowski. His view is that 'experiments using complex material, where all you have to do is press a button to get a result, serve no purpose. Pupils do not proceed by trial and error, but obtain the right result straight away - a result they usually know in advance.' Pedro Pombo, who uses holography to teach concepts of physics to pupils at all levels, sounds the same warning: 'Experimentation, yes, if it is a genuine inquiry. But it doesn't work if you already know the result you are looking for.'


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Inevitable mathematics

There are no two ways about it: even the advocates of less abstract teaching recognise the need to acquire systematic knowledge and the mathematical tools required to proceed further in the study of science. Edgar Jenkins, lecturer in education sciences at Leeds University (UK), admits that 'many scientific concepts are difficult as they are essentially mathematical and contradict intuition'.

It is not so much the subject matter of a science which is a 'turn off' for students - space exploration and animal cloning are both fascinating to them, for example - as the mathematical formalisation, which is very important in physics. So, how can we get round the obstacle? Nicolas Witkowski raises the problem of jargon: 'In maths, and only in maths, words have an unequivocal meaning. The teacher must clarify this vocabulary. It is no good just coming out with Newton's law (F=Gmm'/d2). That doesn't work. You have to say how Newton first formulated his discoveries, in everyday language, and then explain the reason for this formulation, namely the ability to say it all in just four letters, or being able to calculate, etc.'

But Mireille Chaleyat-Maurel warns against having too many illusions: 'Maths is a difficult subject, and it cannot be simplified. So you have to find ways of encouraging students to dig deep.' It is also perhaps necessary to remember the recommendation given at the Physics on stage(1) conference to 'make physics less mathematical for the majority of pupils'.

(1) Held as part of European Science Week at the CERN (Geneva) in November 2000 (see the special issue of RTD info published in January 2001).

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Educating minds in Denmark

Tubes of different material and varying lengths and diameter make sounds of different pitch when you tap them. What determines the note you hear? There was no guesswork involved in this contribution by Danish secondary school pupils to the Hot Physics project headed by the educationalist Poul Thomsen of Aarhus University. The approach was rigorously intellectual. After an initial presentation session, essentially designed to explain 'what it is about', they explored the material and then reported on their research and findings.

The sounds emitted by 18 tubes were compared two at a time to try to understand what causes the note to vary. Is it only the length of the tubes? On what basis can that claim be made? How many comparisons are necessary to arrive at that conclusion? 'We also want to introduce the notion of control of one variable (the pitch of the sound) by other independent variables (the tube characteristics),' explains Poul Thomsen. This kind of approach is then adopted by normal physics lessons. For example, rather than learning the law of perfect gases by heart, as if it were a cooking recipe, there is a need to construct it, or to conceive experiments showing the effects of one variable on the others.
It is thus more a question of developing intellectual tools than of engaging in 'science for science's sake'. In this respect Hot Physics is following on from the example of the British CASE experience initiated in 1982 and supervised by Philip Adley, lecturer at King's College London. For him 'science becomes the gateway to general intellectual development. It is an excellent vehicle for that.'

Two decades after the event, it is possible to take real stock of what was achieved. Philip Adley believes it is positive: 'We are seeing the long-term effect. Pupils taught using the CASE method at ten years of age have better results at 14, not just in sciences, but in maths and English too.'


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Europe on-line

The fifth Netd@ys will run from 19 to 25 November. Launched on the initiative of the European Commission in 1997, they are designed to make the general public more aware of the new media and to promote the creation of original content through the on-line presentation of projects of an educational, artistic or informative nature on a number of common themes. Youth on the Net, Citizenship and the Internet, and European Cultural Diversity on the Net are the three 'themes' for 2001. Several partners are expected to contribute
to all initiatives, from local to transcontinental level. Some 300 projects involving 150 000 organisations from 85 countries participated in last year's event.


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