Getting to grips with science

In today’s knowledge-based society, science and technology (S&T), as we are being constantly reminded, have become an integral part of our everyday lives. Could it then be because of its close proximity to us that the image of science seems tarnished and its exploits no longer heroic? This appears to be the case in the most developed countries, where the next generation is turning its back on S&T subjects at school – and even more so when choosing careers. Even if these observations are open for discussion, the results of various studies (Eurobarometer, Pisa, Rose, TIMSS) have confirmed the same trend.

This apparent lack of interest in S&T is undoubtedly a cause for concern for not just educational authorities, teachers, research and scientific centres, and those working in informal education, but also for actors from business and industry. So what are the causes of this indifference to S&T and how best can they be remedied?

At European level, for example, Eurydice, an EU funded education network, analysed science teaching in 30 countries (1). The authors of the report focus particularly on teacher training, school programmes and standardised student evaluations. They look at those who train science teachers, pointing out that the ‘question underlying the data presented here is what regulations are defined at central level and whether these have much to say about what teachers should know and what they should be able to do’. They also ask ‘how do they develop innovative approaches and procedures?’, and question ‘the development of scientific ways of thinking by and for teachers themselves’.

The ‘Rocard group’, appointed by the European Commission, recommends a radical change in the teaching of science (see page 10). This special issue of research*eu features projects aimed at providing educational support to teachers, who often become scapegoats in the debate on education. A number of initiatives, several of which have been set up by major, trans-European scientific centres within the framework of EIROforum (pages 38-42), deal with teacher training, while other projects focus on establishing networks of educational activities (Ecsite, Xplora, Pencil, Pollen). Also featured are some examples of projects from museums and science centres (Barcelona, London, Bordeaux and Naples), where an informal educational approach has been taken to complement traditional forms of teaching. As for universities and researchers, several initiatives are showcased which demonstrate that academia has plenty of imagination when it comes to working with schools, as well as with larger audiences (Mar-Eco, ‘climaTIC-suisse’).

In addition to the abundance of initiatives aimed at reawakening a taste for science, the causes of any indifference and/or disenchantment need to be addressed. Decoding the enormous Rose study on the relevance of science education (page 7), Svein Sjøberg and Camilla Schreiner move on to the emergence of "youth culture" in industrialised countries, and examine the images and values it conveys. They also point to the problem of democratic participation and the importance – for everyone – of understanding the impact that S&T has on the way we look at the world and live our lives. These issues also guide the approach taken by Luigi Amodio in his work as director of the Città del Scienza (page 30).

Even if society has started to question and critically examine science more, this does not mean, fortunately, that it is less interested in the debate on the challenges and issues of scientific research. In order to be convinced of this, it suffices to spend a lively evening at a science café in Nimègue (NL), where two very experienced physicists, Gerard ’t Hooft (Nobel 1999) and Robbert Dijkgraaf, enthral the crowd with a topic as abstract as chord theory (page 32), or to listen to some of what other science enthusiasts – whether they don a white coat or not (page 6) – have to say about their work as researchers (page 20).

  1. Science teaching in schools in Europe. Policies and research, 2006 – ISBN 92-79-01922-8 – Available in French and English -