11 April 2022
by Andrea Gaini

Reinventing science education

An event hosted by the UK Westminster Forum honed in on the priorities for science education in preparing tomorrow’s leaders to face the big societal challenges ahead. Andrea Gaini reports.

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‘There is no doubt that we live in a rapidly changing world. New technology is developing, maturing and changing the way we work, the way we rest, the way we play and interact with each other,’ said Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chair of the UK Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, in his opening remarks for a conference dedicated to the next steps for science education.

‘Technologies such as artificial intelligence and automation are becoming commonplace in our day-to-day lives, Big Data and data science are underpinning many of the developments that we’re making, and quantum computing and sensing are beginning to take hold.

‘We also face a huge number of challenges both nationally and globally, from addressing the issue of climate change and decarbonising our economy, to feeding an ever-growing world population, ensuring they have clean water and sanitation and access to healthcare.

‘I believe we can rise to those challenges. Indeed, I think we can embrace them and turn them into opportunities. But to do that, we need to equip our young people…with the skills to be able to do that, to solve problems [and] ensure that they, and the UK, can prosper in a globally competitive world.’

Sparking an interest

In a recent Oxford University Press (OUP) survey, The Evolution of Science Education, of the nearly 400 teachers that responded, only 30% believe that current science education is fit for the future.

Amie Hewish, Head of Secondary (STEM Subjects) at OUP, reported on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Science Framework development for 2025, a framework to inform discussions about the future direction of the PISA Science test. She reflected, ‘The strategic visioning exercise that we took part in proposes that a future vision of science education should include a dimension on scientific identity. And when we’re talking about scientific identity, we’re talking about how a student identifies with Science’. 

She explained, ‘The pandemic has reduced experiences…it’s reduced [students’] exposure to…Science teachers, who in some cases have played a really key role in how they see themselves as Scientists, and how they can identify with a future path in Science.’

Hewish talked about the importance of disciplinary and practical science, as well as the coherence between disciplines and with other subjects.

‘Each scientific discipline has its own story – it has its own power, and it has its own fundamental concepts. And studying in a disciplinary way really helps students to develop their understanding of the science of the sciences.

‘But it’s in those boundaries where the sciences overlap, and actually where the sciences draw on enabling competencies, such as working with data and computing and mathematics, that there’s a real awe and wonder and where a spark can be ignited. An example would be something like genomics and informatics.’

Dr Michelle Saunders, Science Curriculum Lead at St Matthew’s Catholic Primary School in Prudhoe, UK, contributed to this discussion drawing on the challenges of teaching.

She said, ‘Not only are you teaching Science, but you are also teaching English, Maths, History and a whole range of other subjects. Trying to…allocate sufficient time in the curriculum for Science can be quite a challenge, and particularly in the last year or so when we have knock on-effects of home learning.’

However, she explained that this is a crucial time to be teaching Science as research shows students have often already made up their mind about whether there is a career for them by the age of 11.

‘Most primary teachers are not Science trained, they will rarely even have A-level Science, never mind beyond that. And that causes quite a significant lack of confidence quite a lot of the time, however enthusiastic you might be, particularly when it comes to sciences like Physics, as they can be quite challenging to teach.

‘One of the key areas of work that I think needs to be done to support primary teachers is to increase their subject knowledge, [because] teacher confidence is really going to impact how well a subject is taught and how well a child can understand and engage with Science.’

She also argued that developing a high-quality curriculum will play an important role in sparking an interest.

‘We need to look particularly at Science to ensure that we have a progressive curriculum, right from early years… and into secondary school. And quite often that barrier from primary to secondary proves to be the sticking point.’

Dr Lynne Bianchi, Director of the Science and Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub at the University of Manchester, UK, revealed the key findings of its report, The 10 Key Issues with Children’s Learning in Primary Science in England (see box-out below). They found that ‘children experiencing fun Science activities fail to deepen or develop new learning. We want children to enjoy Science, but we want them to enjoy Science in the most purposeful and meaningful way.

‘If our time is limited within the curriculum, we must make sure that every moment is a moment where a child makes progress and deepens their understanding of concepts and strengthens their skills…[Another issue is that] children are currently not necessarily drawing on their prior scientific skills’.

As it stands, in primary school at least, science is often seen as one big subject without identifying the different pathways.

‘We should separate the scientific disciplines of Biology, Chemistry and Physics, in the way that their curricula describe, the way that they are timetabled, and most importantly, the way in which teachers are recruited and deployed to teach each of them,’ explained Charles Tracy, Head of Education at the Institute of Physics, UK. ‘Re-establishing an expectation that each of the sciences has its own identity within the curriculum and is taught by an infield or specialist teacher.

‘We did a survey of timetables a couple of years ago, and [we found that] nearly half of schools do not distinguish the disciplines on the timetable. They don’t prioritise teachers teaching in their home discipline and, in over a third of schools, the three sciences are shared between two teachers.

‘These restrictions are usually expedient rather than philosophical. They’re based on technicalities of timetabling and teacher availability rather than what is best for the student.’

Unlocking science learning

A report from the University of Manchester and the Ogden Trust, UK, released last year, outlines the 10 key issues with children’s learning in primary Science in England. They are reported as:

  • Children’s Science learning is superficial and lacks depth.
  • Children’s preconceptions are not adequately valued.
  • Children’s Science learning lacks challenge.
  • Children are over-reliant on teacher talk and direction, they lack autonomy and independence in learning Science.
  • Children experience ‘fun’ activities that fail to deepen or develop new learning.
  • Children are not encouraged to use their own curiosity, scientific interests and questions in their learning.
  • Children are engaged in prescriptive practical work that lacks purpose.
  • Children do not draw on their learning from prior scientific skills, they do not build on repeated and regular experiences.
  • Children rarely see themselves, their families, community members or their teachers as Scientists.
  • Children do not apply literacy and numeracy skills in Science at the standard they use in English and Mathematics.

Advancing accessibility

Clare Harvey, Chief Executive at The Ogden Trust, which collaborated on the above-mentioned report with Manchester University, affirmed the vital role of careers education.

She said, ‘Careers education is a really important way to tackle this because it enables them to meet Scientists, to see who Scientists are, what kind of people they are, and find ways that they can identify with someone in that scientific role.

‘The Aspires 2 report [by the Association for Science and Discovery Centres] found that working class, minority ethnic students and girls were significantly less likely to receive and benefit from high-quality career support.’

The report found that middle-class students identifying as male, or students with high levels of ‘family science capital’, were much more likely to aspire to a career in Science and want to feel, and be recognised by others as being, ‘science-y’

‘So, it’s really important that we do all we can to support the schools and employers to be able to access all of those young people who might not have the social networks between them and their family and friends to have met Scientists or come across them in their daily life,’ asserts Harvey.

Helena Dodd, Research Postgraduate in the Department of Chemistry and Chair of WOMENinSTEM at Imperial College London, UK, drew on her personal experience.

‘I myself am an example of someone from a working-class background who had never met a Scientist before, and had no family members that had been to university. So, I am aware of the struggles that people from maybe less represented backgrounds face, and how it just is that much bit harder to get into a Russell Group University, do well and go through a research career.

‘For me, when I was young, and I was in school...doing well in Science, all my teachers told me, ‘You should go into medicine when you’re older’. I think there was a lack of awareness of STEM careers beyond medical and caring careers.

‘So, it was only when I was 17, after I’d been pushed into medicine for quite a few years that I realised that medicine wasn’t for me.

‘There were other things that were a better fit for me, and I settled on Chemistry. So, I think it’s really key to encourage careers in Science that are broad, and I think particularly Engineering – there’s been quite a lack of understanding of what Engineering is and showcasing that to young people.’

She continued, ‘I think academics can be quite notoriously within their own bubble, and can be quite bad at communicating with people that aren’t in academia. So, I think it’s very important to have more academics involved in showcasing their work, showcasing what university is like to make this a less intimidating environment to people that have no experience of university and may have never had a family member who has been there.’

She explained that one of the ways she tries to tackle this is to bring role models into schools.

‘And I think it’s important to have various career stages represented because it’s all well and good to bring in a really senior professor – they’re very inspirational, but I think they’re not really relatable… young people might think, ‘this is 20 stages ahead of me, I can’t see where the other 19 are.’

‘So balance is very important, and I think it’s also important to showcase people from different backgrounds, because within a single classroom, there’s so much diversity, and all the children there will have different experiences.’

Only 30%* of teachers believe that science education is fit for the future.

Source: The Evolution of Science Education survey, Oxford University Press

*Survey of approximately 400 teachers

Tackling teacher attrition

Tracey continued, ‘And if we look at the up-take [of] Physics across socio-economic quintiles, you’re three times more likely to take Physics A-levels if your family is in the highest socio-economic quintile than in the lowest.

‘It should be an entitlement that all students in all schools from all backgrounds have access to infield Physics…Biology and Chemistry [teaching].

‘Not only are we short of Physics teachers, there is still a net loss every year, and that’s partly due to teacher attrition. About 43% of Science teachers have left within five years of qualifying.

‘One aspect is the burden that we put on these teachers, particularly in their early career, that burden being much greater than teachers of other single subjects. It arises from expecting these teachers to teach three disciplines rather than one, usually up to GCSE.

‘And where this requirement used to be the exception 20 or 30 years ago, it has now become the norm. And it’s tough…they have three times as much preparation to do.

‘It’s less rewarding because they’re teaching outside subjects that they chose, and they will feel less effective themselves. And with fewer repeat lessons, they take longer to get really good.’

Leading by example

Jo Pennington-Wright, Head of Science at Tring School, Hertfordshire, UK, spoke about the journey her school has been on for the last nine years.

‘[Our] aim was to make [students] more resilient, when it came to examination, and empowering them in their own learning, and establishing the curiosity that we wanted in the classroom.

In 2014, they redesigned their Key Stage Three and Five curricula to be more activity, rather than instructive, based, where the students help to lead the learning.

‘So, the first term in Year Seven, we don’t do any content at all, we focus on investigation skills. And we’ve also put in some case lessons, which I think are really important for those thinking skills, at Key Stage Three.’

She noted that the biggest challenge was the leap of faith to give up control and put the learning back onto the students.

‘In 2016, we became a Google school and every student now has a Chromebook. And it has actually revolutionised the way that we share resources with others and the students. And we’ve designed our own websites – we are able to give back direct feedback, we can do collaborative work together, students have access to online textbooks, online revision resources – everything that’s chosen by us, we know it’s appropriate for them.

‘During lockdown, we had to go fully electronic, but we have bought this back into the classroom. And actually, it’s really helped students [and] it also helps us centre students, because they can work at different paces and without it being highlighted within the classroom setting.’

Metcalfe summed up the event talking about the need to ‘reconnect businesses with our education system to ensure that their aims are aligned, we need greater cooperation across the whole education system, so that the hard barriers between the various changes in education are smoothed out.

‘We need to help individuals, the students, the parents, the influencers, understand the exciting opportunities that exist [in Science] outside of the classroom.’

Also listen to IOM3 Investigates...Materials Science Outreach for a podcast on encouraging more people and those from different backgrounds into Materials Science at bit.ly/36RicrW


Andrea Gaini