While a new Australian survey shows that our science literacy has fallen in the past three years, another survey in the United States goes straight to the point of explaining the high attrition rate in the study of science and maths subjects after they are no longer part of the compulsory curriculum.
The US survey found that almost 60% of scientists believe that curiousity and creativity (50%) are the most important characteristics for working as a scientist. In the classroom, scientists (85%), teachers (79%) and parents (66%) believe that’s also the case for students.
But kids themselves said the most important trait for success is “to be smart” (56%).
"Isaac Newton discovered gravity after wondering why apples fell from tree branches. Our survey found that we need to encourage students to ask similar questions about the world around them and discover new possibilities," said Barbara Del Duke, senior public affairs manager of diversified chemical company, FMC Corporation, who funded the research.
The Australian survey by Auspoll for the Australian Academy of Science showed that the proportion of 18-24 year olds who correctly answered that it takes one year for the Earth to orbit the sun was 62% compared with 74% in 2010.
Another recent Australian report called for maths and science to be made compulsory in the last two years of high school because there was a concentration of highly-talented students in those subjects. The impact of this is not only to deter other students from participating in maths and science, but the school system also churns out students who have little-to-no maths or science under their belt.
The report, Where does Australia stand on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education?, says the school system allows high-achieving students to use difficult maths and science subjects as "a privileged route for selection into high-status university programs.”
The report also found that the OECD nations that had performed the best in international comparisons of maths and science students are also those that were "exceptionally strong in research and development and are rapidly growing their scientific output".
The US survey found that, to engage students in science and help them to understand complex concepts, the majority of parents (74%), teachers (61%) and scientists (77%) agreed on educators using a hands-on approach in the classroom. The majority of students (70%) also said science lessons should be fun.
Professor Martin Westwell, director of the Flinders Centre for Science Education in the 21st Century, agrees.
“Science education must be meaningful to young people,” he says. “We have to develop young people who think about the world in scientific ways, who ask questions, wonder how things work.”
Professor Westwell says educators need to overcome the distinctions between science, art and humanities.