STEMming the tide: The need to improve science education, not abandon it

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up of a liquid being pipitted into a test tube

I have been most concerned by recent reports suggesting that some schools are considering making Year 11 Science an elective course, rather than continuing with it as part of the school’s compulsory curriculum – their apparent rationale is that it simply ‘too hard’. My immediate reaction is: Too hard for whom? Surely this is a pedagogical challenge that science educators at all levels would immediately accept.

If Year 11 Science seems to be getting the better of some students, then let’s find more appropriate ways for them to learn it, not abandon it. Let’s help them be more prepared for it by ensuring that, from the earliest years in the school system, science is taught in an engaging and accessible way, and is assessed in accord with appropriate objectives. The need for all young people to have some basic scientific concepts and awareness is compelling. For a school to prematurely loosen its requirements in science not only sends the worst possible message to our young people, but it may also fail to prepare them adequately for the kind of future they are already facing.

Every advanced country is striving to enhance its population’s understanding of science and technology. In part this is because economic health increasingly depends on a workforce more competent to develop and use advanced technologies. But there are other important reasons as well. Environmental protection and societal health also depend on our ever-deepening understanding of technology – whether to improve our lives with it, or, in some cases, to be able to make appropriate choices about limiting its application.

But more broadly, science literacy is critical to confronting the deeper issues we face as we increasingly turn to the application of new knowledge and technology as solutions to current and emerging health, social and environmental challenges. Paradoxically, it is the human capacity to develop and use technologies that has generated some of these challenges. Thus, to limit our collective societal understanding of science and technology (which is effectively where failing to teach our young people will lead us), is to limit our potential to address the challenges in a meaningful way.

Thankfully we do not live in the type of society described by Plato where decisions would be made by the “wisdom of technocrats”. Rather we take pride in the fact that such decisions are made by citizens through representative democratic processes. Yet, the pace of development in science and technology is so fast that its application to issues such as food security, sustainable energy, antibiotic resistance, climate change and privacy of personal data, for instance, will require substantive political and public discourse. It is self-evident that such debate will be more mature if the discussion is based on core scientific literacy about new technologies.

Too often societal debates about application of science and technology are based on rhetoric and confusion about what a technology is or can do. This has been repeatedly illustrated by arguments about climate change, 1080 pesticide and fluoride. A populous that is ignorant of how ‘evidence’ is produced and how to critically appraise rhetoric and hype, is at risk of making choices that may not be optimal.

So what is the role of the education system? At its most basic, it is to prepare young people to become adults that are able to contribute to the social and economic fabric of our country. It is obvious that today’s young people are growing up in a world where the sources and pace of knowledge are immensely dynamic; the education system must adapt to equip them for this world, not ignore it.

The response of most advanced countries is to reflect hard on the future of science, technology, engineering and mathematics within their educational frameworks (often abbreviated to STEM education). Many also argue cogently that there is room within the STEM curriculum for a broader incorporation of the creative arts that often marry so well with the STEM subjects, particularly in fields like animation and industrial design. Other innovative STEM pedagogy being developed in some countries includes courses on the role of science in society, on science and societal ethics and on entrepreneurship.

Indeed, throughout the developed world, increasing attention is being paid to the nature, quality and context of STEM education at both the primary and secondary levels. But as I detailed in my 2011 report Looking Ahead: Science Education for the Twenty-First Century, there is a need to consider whether the traditional mode of discipline based science teaching in the secondary years is best for all students, or whether it should become more sophisticated in its approach to ensure its relevance.

Furthermore, many curriculum experts think that it is necessary to consider how to provide science literacy to all students in such a way as to enable the use of science in their working lives. However, one of the poorly understood aspects of the New Zealand curriculum is its significant empowerment of teachers to find ways to make their subject exciting, relevant and engaging. While all students need basic science literacy, only a subset need the more traditional discipline based learning at an advanced level – these are students who will be relying on STEM subjects in their tertiary education and career choices. Here too there are real challenges that must be addressed. In both situations the issue of science education is too often not that of the recipients’ response but rather the issue of content and pedagogical delivery and assessment. The work and resources of the New Zealand Association of Science Educators can help to extend our thinking in this regard.

My 2011 report also highlighted some of the issues and opportunities for advancing New Zealand’s STEM teaching. Briefly we need to find better ways to help science teachers to stay engaged with the science community; to bring the science community closer to the teaching community; and to take advantage of new technologies etc. The Ministry of Education’s newly expanded Network for Learning (N4L) initiative offers exciting potential. Similarly, as the Ministry’s recent report Strengthening engagements between schools and the science community details, there are indeed some very exciting initiatives in science education underway in New Zealand across the spectrum of schools. In addition, the new robust broadband network will now offer ways to roll out nationally the most effective STEM programmes and professional development opportunities for teachers. Already, a number of teachers have been engaged in fellowships through the Royal Society of New Zealand aimed at building closer links between the science and teaching communities.

The importance of broadly based science education was also highlighted in the report of the National Science Challenge Panel, which proposed an additional “Science and Society” Challenge and put this to the Government itself. Already I have been involved in discussions together with a senior officials group, as to how to address this particular Challenge, which goes well beyond science education and into areas of public engagement. Schools are essential to addressing this Challenge. A (re)discovery of ‘citizen science,’ (popular with amateur naturalists since the early 20th century and used in schools in many parts of Europe and North America since the 1980s) holds significant potential to help make science fun and relevant to students from an early age. I am pleased that several schools are now exploring such ideas here.

Against the background of both the undeniable need for science literacy and the innovative possibilities for science teaching, I am concerned and somewhat baffled to read reports of some schools apparently considering withdrawing from their commitment to provide science education to their students somewhat prematurely because they see it as ‘too hard’. The issue is not about the students, rather it suggests a teaching challenge to which, I would hope, the teaching community at all levels would respond positively.

As mentioned above, not every person who has science education will become a scientist or a technologist but every young person will grow up in a world dominated by scientific and technological issues. Their opportunities for employment could well be limited by inadequate science literacy. But I would argue that their potential as engaged citizens in a technology-driven culture is also what’s at stake.

Schools do a disservice to their students, their communities and to New Zealand if they prematurely loosen their commitment to science in the curriculum because it is perceived as ‘too hard’. There are clearly challenges; issues of relevancy, content, mode of delivery and mode of assessment should all be critically addressed. This requires the pedagogical researchers, science teachers, school administrators and parents to look to new models, to think about which students need what kind of exposure and about how to take advantage of the digital classroom. In short it would be far more productive to work towards nation-wide, multi-level progress on such matters rather than individual schools and their Boards making decisions that will potentially disadvantage cadres of young people.

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