Science education – licence to explore

Floriane Fidegnon-Edoh, Sixth former, The Ursuline Academy Ilford

Throughout my education, there has been a divide between those who love science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and those who don’t. I have always questioned why it was like this. I just couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t want to mix science and the arts. I am studying A-level maths, further maths, chemistry and physics at school but I didn’t want to choose between science and humanities, the system made me.

Now I’ve seen more of what the system has to offer, I think there is a divide because STEM education has lost sight of what it really should be about. Instead of inspiring students and helping us to understand the world around us, it is about memorising facts for an exam.

In primary school, I was always the first to come up with an idea to experiment with and I loved trying home science projects such as making fizzy drinks with sugar and bicarbonate of soda. My passion for science grew when I joined The Ursuline Academy Ilford, and a few passionate members of staff inspired me to compete in the National Science + Engineering Competition at The Big Bang Fair, where my team won the Shell Prize for Sustainability. I have been a STEM mentor, taking part in the CREST Youth Panel and, more recently, setting up a STEM club at my school and attending a tech incubator over the summer. Even though I have gone to a school that tries to take STEM beyond the classroom, I have yet to meet many more people who have felt similarly inspired.

Research shows that young people are rejecting science as early as ten years old.1 You can’t blame them. It feels like the real essence of science education – to allow children to explore – has been drained out of it. We are pressured to do well in exams and to learn and memorise only what is relevant to the curriculum. When we do express an interest in an area outside the exam specification, we’re met with resistance from the teacher.

The result, from my experience and from talking to other enthusiasts: science in the classroom – at least up to GCSE – can be boring and irrelevant. That desire to understand, to question why things work, is halted by the need for the student to learn only what is deemed necessary. This makes no educational sense. Why should children only learn about biology from a whiteboard when great thinkers such as Darwin spent time exploring and questioning habitats before he came up with the theory of evolution? Many great physicists, such as Einstein, came up with theories that were deeply mathematical – yet when maths is involved with science lessons we’re simply given formulae to use. We’re transformed into exam machines and the rigid curriculum makes us lose sight of what science is really about.

The relevance of the science curriculum to the lives of me and my peers is also questionable. How much of what we learn relates to everyday life? When it does, why aren’t these links drawn upon to engage us students? It turns us off the pursuit of discovery. We are either not allowed to discover or not shown how. Science, I believe, should be much more practical and should involve more cross-curricular activities. Instead of teaching students about electricity and then continuing onto the next unit, students should go on to learn its importance in everyday life and how it can be applied to the technology they use. Instead of being told that species have evolved throughout time, the students should do practical activities where they follow in the footsteps of Darwin by studying earthworms or even animals in their local zoo. These are just a couple of ways students can be inspired.

Time and time again, I have seen the spark of curiosity fade from my friends. Even mine has faded as we’re tasked with learning and regurgitating facts that I would only really be able to apply to my exam paper. It’s disheartening to us that we are aware that there are many things that we do not know but could know. Science lessons should enable students to discover the world around them and allow them to question the claims of others in a rational way. Instead we go through the education system, only to become the next generation of a largely disinterested population who see no real relevance of science.

Students are pressurised into specialising much too early, before we can really get a chance to understand the benefits of the sciences. In 2012­13, only 8.4 per cent of students combined arts and science disciplines in their AS-levels, while in 2011, only 2 per cent of students who took A­level physics also took an A-level in the arts or design. The Warwick Commission shares this concern, stating that our subject-based curriculum is causing “early specialisation in arts or science disciplines that ignores and obscures discussion around the future need for all children to enjoy an education that encourages creativity, making and enterprise across the curriculum. We need creative scientists as much as we need artists who understand the property of materials and the importance of new technology”.2

There are, however, ways in which things can be improved. Recent efforts to implement arts in STEM have been renewed to encourage people to develop as both creative and academic. Schemes such as the CREST Awards can be used to generate a creative interest in STEM outside of the classroom. Qualifications such as the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) should be offered more widely to allow students to study the subjects that interest them. Allocating time throughout the year for students to question and debate what we’re learning would generate more conversation about issues that may be STEM-related and directly impact us. Things are moving forward but it is important that this debate is kept alive.

We may not change the face of science in the next few years, but I hope in the future we will see a classroom that not only teaches a child about STEM but also gives them a licence to explore.

  1. See: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/education/research/aspires/ASPIRES-final-report-December-2013.pdf
  2. See: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/research/warwickcommission/futureculture/finalreport/warwick_commission_report_2015.pdf

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