The ROSE Study

Values and choices

Young people are turning away from scientific studies and careers. ‘Everyone’ deplores this fact. Svein Sjøberg, Professor of Education Sciences at the University of Oslo, and Camilla Schreiner, a young doctoral student working in the same field, give us their opinions on the hows and whys of this situation. The international ROSE (The Relevance of Science Education) Study, led by Norway for the past few years, supports their arguments. If we want to motivate students, we perhaps need to analyse what motivates them...

Svein Sjøberg Svein Sjøberg
Camilla Schreiner Camilla Schreiner

In "advanced" countries, one particular observation is a cause of concern: Young people are opting less and less for scientific studies and careers. How do you explain this trend?

Svein Sjøberg: Let me turn this question around. Who says that we have to change this situation? For whom is young people's avoidance of S&T studies a problem? Everybody tells young people that the lack of scientists and engineers is a problem for society. If this is the case, market forces could, for example, make these jobs more attractive and better paid. Alternatively, we could ‘solve’ this problem by importing young talents from Asia or elsewhere, as the United States does.

Also, to be honest, the lack of recruitment is not a valid argument for young people. Youngsters do not choose their future careers on the basis of what (some) adults say is good for competitiveness or the economy of their country! And they also see that it is not the scientists or engineers who get the best jobs. Besides, S&T studies may be hard and demanding, they require concentrated effort. Many other studies are easier, perhaps also more fun…

Camilla Schreiner: Youth is commonly seen as a time when people construct their identity. Young people express their identities through symbols such as clothing, leisure activities, taste in music, sports, school subject preferences, classroom behaviour, etc. Educational and professional choices are also seen as symbols communicating an identity. A designer or an actor has a different image to an engineer or a physicist.

Because of this background, pedagogy specialists – and sociologists – say that the traditional question of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ addresses a more far-reaching issue than before. Today, the answer should be seen less as a perception about a job or an income, and more as an answer to the question ‘who do you want to become?’ When young people choose an education or a job, they simultaneously express important components of their identities.

But there seems to be a paradox, at least in many countries, between young people's interest in science - which is shown by many studies - and the choice to make a career of it.

S.S.: We need to make an important distinction here. Young learners are actually interested in S&T, but not so much in the S&T they meet in their school curriculum, which is traditionally based on well-established science that cannot be challenged – that even the philosophers of science call "textbook science".

This is in stark contrast to the "real science", which scientists of today are engaged in, with its heated debates, new experiments, tentative hypotheses, conjectures and conclusions, etc. This is the research frontier, where new territories of knowledge are actively constructed by real people. This is often the kind of science that is reported (often misleadingly, however) in newspapers, TV programmes etc. Many youngsters love this kind of science – although they may hate school science.

Would it then be sufficient to change school curricula, to offer "real" science and to get rid of encyclopaedic and "fossilized" teaching?

S.S.: Yes, we do need to change and upgrade the S&T curricula. But this poses difficult questions. On the one hand, we want school science to change and become more "real"; on the other hand we cannot teach the latest advances without also providing the necessary tools to understand them. Ideally, we should revise the way we teach traditional basic knowledge. This knowledge is the Wisdom of Hindsight, when all dead ends are removed, when all the conflicts have been resolved, all the dust of heated discussions has settled. Such well-established science may seem boring, but it also provides a basis for a deeper understanding of current research.

Furthermore, addressing these ‘new frontiers of science’ at school requires great effort on the part of the teachers, few of whom are prepared to present these contemporary subjects.

Do we need to adapt teaching to reflect the ways that young generations think? What are the limits to an approach of this kind?

C.S.: Of course we cannot adapt the science curriculum to current trends in youth culture and the interests and values of the pupils. This is neither desirable nor possible. Rather, knowledge of young peoples' interests, priorities and concerns can be a means to create a link between the teaching of science and young people’s lives. Being interested in pupils’ values does not mean adopting those values, but they can be used to kick off discussions. The broad diversity of students’ interests also offers teachers a wide range of avenues to engage pupils in scientific content and encourage them to reflect on their own opinions and priorities.

SS: Many of the items in our ROSE questionnaire would definitely not have a place in a serious science curriculum. Some of them may still be addressed in discussions about what is science and what is not science. To be able to distinguish science from pseudo-science is an important issue. So for example, a science curriculum could discuss astrology, homeopathy, divination etc. Maybe even the links between science and religion. But treating such issues delicately, without offending people who believe in these systems, is not easy.

Does an evolution of this kind in teaching not run the risk of leading to lower requirements and to a drop in student levels and hence of the students themselves?

S.S.: This is one of the many challenges. Perhaps we have to choose different methods, depending on the age and level of the pupils. When we have a general “science for all” course, you need to find approaches that suit everybody, not only the future scientist, but also the future citizen, consumer and voter. At that level, we simply cannot present mini-versions of academic science. However, in the higher grades, when the students have made their own choices, we can certainly put more emphasis on the laws, theories and models of science.

The responses to the sentence, "I would like to become a scientist", asked on the ROSE Study questionnaire, are clearly more positive in Africa and Asia. Why?

S.S.: Differences should be treated with caution. In some countries, there is a tendency to agree to most assertions, in others not. We therefore often compare relative scores or residual scores, where we look at the data in a different way.

In particular, the desire to become a scientist or engineer in poorer countries can also be understood in the light of their lower socio-economic development. Many of these countries are at the same level that Europe was at after World War II. The countries had to be rebuilt. The engineers and scientists were heroes, and this pushed children towards scientific and technical studies. Poorer countries are in a very similar situation today, I guess.

C.S.: The more developed a country is, the less interested the students seem to be in becoming scientists or engineers. These disciplines do not appear as important and meaningful. Rather, they are “nerdy” and dated. But it is interesting to see that the "softer" subjects – like biology, medicine, veterinary medicine and environmental studies – do not suffer from this lack of students. For these young people, working with challenges connected to health and the environment is more meaningful than becoming engrossed in physics, maths or technology.

Another paradoxical situation has been observed in regions where S&T are very developed. In the Scandinavian countries and Japan, for example, young people are not only indifferent but even critical and pessimistic about science and technology.

S.S.: Again, we have to be careful with our interpretations. Maybe pessimism is not the right word. Many youngsters in wealthy countries are less concerned about material and economical development. But that does not stop them from being every concerned about the future. Good science teaching could take these views into consideration. Even if the solutions to environmental challenges will not come entirely through science and technology, we have to demonstrate to sceptics that S&T do not just cause problems, but they also offer solutions.

The differences in the attitudes of girls and boys are also more marked in industrialised countries. Does this surprise you?

C.S.: "Youth culture" is a modern phenomenon that is widely described in Western societies, but it does not exist in the same way in more traditional countries. This culture is characterised notably by very marked differences in attitude between boys and girls, who all want to express their masculinity or femininity. This differentiation also interferes in their attitudes towards science.

S.S.: Yes, it is paradoxical that wealthy regions, such as Scandinavia, where the level of gender equality is one of the highest in the world and gender equality has been a political priority for decades, have a much greater differences in attitude between boys and girls than other countries. These differences are expressed in the value attributed to S&T, but also in many other aspects of their lives.

Youth is the society of tomorrow... Doesn't any disinterest in, or lack of knowledge about science and technologies lead to a democratic deficit?

S.S: Definitely. For me the main problem is not the fact that scientists do not communicate enough with the public. The major challenge for our societies is really that of democratic participation. It is important that the young (and the less young) understand the significance of S&T for our culture, our worldview, our way of life, etc. In this way they would have more “realistic” attitudes regarding the possibilities as well as the limitations of S&T. They should be able to be constructive and critical towards scientists and technologists. They should also develop a kind of intellectual independence that enables them to distinguish between serious science and the pseudo-scientific claims that they encounter through the mass media and in adverts for new products.

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What we learn from ROSE

How do we improve science and technology studies? How do we encourage students to be more interested in them? From one continent and one country to another, what are the differences and commonalities in this area? Initiated by Norway, the impressive ROSE study reveals the current state of affairs. The study, carried out with 15-year-olds, is not limited to quantitative data but provides an in-depth look, thanks to interviews, at young peoples' expectations and values. The work is carried out by researchers in 43 countries on all the continents. Approximately 10 doctoral students are making it the topic of their thesis.

A transparent site provides access to the data, to the questionnaires, to the results by country, to the methods used and to a comparative study of the points of view of young people on science and education, as well as to a number of documents and analyses.

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