Kids no longer want to be scientists: the ROSE (Relevance of Science Education) project findings show that in the wealthiest countries teenagers are turned off school science. We need scientists and the support of a scientifically literate population to drive forward technological advances that will improve our lives. So how can we entice our future Einsteins and Edisons into the laboratory? Could edutainment be the answer?
In the midst of world economic recession governments are looking to science and technology to drive future economic growth. Patrick Clemins, director of The American Association for the Advancement of Science believes, “There's a strong argument that since World War II, about half of America's economic growth have been due to technology and innovation”. The current US administration has pledged to invest 3% of GDP in science, focussing on education, clean energy, research and technology. With all the billions poured into science, it is worrying then for the world’s wealthiest nations that research into attitudes towards science amongst teenagers shows an alarming lack of interest in the subject.
The ROSE project, co-ordinated by Camilla Schreiner and Svein Sjøberg of the University of Oslo in Norway, reveals that the higher a country's ranking according to the UN index of human development (a metric combining life expectancy, per capita GDP and literacy rates), the less interested its 15-year-olds are in school science. This ongoing study involves tens of thousands of children in more than 25 countries worldwide and shows that 15 year olds in countries like Ghana and Bangladesh are very enthusiastic about science. This is in contrast to children in Japan and western European who, although they think that science is important, want to do something “that fits their values and identities” highlighting a “mismatch between youth culture and the (perceived) nature of science and technology”.
There was also a marked difference in attitudes between boys and girls. Very few girls in wealthier countries expressly wanted to be a scientists or work in technology, with Japan being the lowest for both (~5%). A low percentage of boys in the wealthier countries (20-40%) wanted to be scientists but around 50% of boys wanted to work in technology.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that of the 30 fastest growing occupations in the 2008/09 Occupational Outlook Handbook, 27 require a solid understanding of science. From curing cancer to developing renewable energy sources, we need to be educating the next generation of scientists to help us understand the world around us, improve our lives and potentially generate ideas and spin-out companies that will support our knowledge-based economies.
The ROSE project attributes this erosion of interest in science to the way that science is taught. “School science:
• has not showed the relevance for future jobs,
• has not showed the importance for our way of living,
• has not increased curiosity or enhanced critical attitudes,
• has not been seen to improve career possibilities,
• has not increased the appreciation of nature.”
The Role of Edutainment
Whilst formal science education can suffer from a lack of imagination and restrictions imposed by national curricula, there is a clear demand for learning about science informally in a way that can be both relevant and stimulating. The Association of Science-Technology Centers Incorporated (ASTC) estimates that there were 82 million visits to member science centres and museums worldwide in 2009.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recognises that the perception of science in society can be greatly enhanced by collaboration with the entertainment industry: “The scientific community has struggled to find an effective conduit through which it can communicate its story accurately and effectively. Though many of the world’s biggest problems require scientific solutions, finding a way to translate and depict scientific findings so that reach a wide audience has required a sounding board that has often been missing”. To this end the NAS created the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program that “provides entertainment industry professionals with access to top scientists and engineers to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines”.
So are there any tips for anyone creating a science exhibit to help them capture the attention of teenagers? The ROSE project has found that there are distinct differences in attitudes between boys and girls to science summarised in the table below:
The context in which a topic is presented to children was also found to be extremely important. Least interesting across the board were:
• Low context or theoretical context only subjects like how chemicals react,
• Everyday context topics like how detergents work, and
• Famous scientists and their lives – particularly uninteresting to girls, probably because they were usually men and old or dead!
"Bees – Nature’s Hidden Heroes"
Matthias Clostermann is passionate about science education, setting up Hire Reality, a sister company of Clostermann Design, to design travelling science exhibits. With his new venture Clostermann says he is aiming to “use entertainment as a way to broaden horizons, to give people a personal incentive that makes them say: ‘Wow, I want to know more!’”. The first exhibit "Bees – Nature’s Hidden Heroes" premiered in 2010 at Germany’s biggest science centre, the Odysseum in Cologne.
Clostermann‘s interest in both science and the attractions industry began with a visit to a science fiction exhibition: “I was ten and from then on started to strain the nerves of my mother with clay and silicone experiments in the kitchen. Thanks to her tolerance, I already worked professionally for TV and advertisement productions at the age of 14 and had become Germany’s best young make-up artist by that time”. Realising that the film industry in Germany was not developed enough to support his ambitions, Clostermann started to work in themed design. “Whereas movie productions have started working with more and more computer generated animation, the theme park industry is still pure craftsmanship and every project remains a challenge to create credible and stunning effects”.
An interest in education has come from his mother: “I like science, because my mother showed me the fascination of it…for me, true education means fostering the ability to be interested in something”.
The inspiration for the bees exhibit came from a conversation between Clostermann and a hobby beekeeper friend in the US who “described to me the impact of the mysterious disappearing of thousands of bees in the U.S. and explained to me, how important these small insects are for our ecosystem. I was surprised, how little I knew about bees”. In terms of capturing the imagination of schoolchildren the subject matter hits the mark perfectly. Kathrin Zwanzig, PR Manager at the Odysseum, says that “the subject is really newsworthy and it fits very well into the topics of the Odysseum. .. Furthermore the exhibit activates one of our main target groups, primary schools”.
The exhibit itself is a mixture of elements with full-body-involvement, push-button-activities, experimental station, and small tasks in an immersive environment. Key elements include:
– A bomb detector where the bee’s exceptional sense of smell is employed to find dangerous hidden material,
– Row-a-bee: a bee rowing machine where the visitor rows to mimic the bee’s flight,
– The scary story of a killer bee victim, and
– A bee keeper experience – a recreation of the feeling of having hundreds of bees crawling all over you.
Zwanzig also reports particularly successful news coverage, and positive visitor reactions: “Families, school classes and even beekeepers were impressed by the interactive realization of this exhibit and the variety of themes beginning which the anatomy of the bees up to the scary story of killer-bees”.
Do androids dream of electric sheep?
The next exhibition planned by Hire Reality for 2011 will be about robots and how machines have changed our lives. Clostermann is particularly interested in examining philosophical questions raised by our technological advances. “Can robots gain true intelligence? Think about a lovable little human-like robot that pleads for its life while you are turning to switch it off. How would you feel?”
Clostermann is right to be involving children in philosophical debate, rather than presenting dry facts and avoiding uncertainty. There is even evidence to show that when children study philosophy, the exposure to discussion of open ended questions can actually improve IQ scores. The ROSE study presented the thousands of teenagers surveyed with over 100 potential topics and found those that were most interesting for both boys and girls were themes which dealt with the philosophical, unsolved mysteries, life’s wonders and space science.
So what was the MOST interesting topic? What exhibit should every science centre include to draw in crowds of teens? Phone home ET, the winner is:
Life outside earth