By Tim Johnson
Science isn’t fun — or at least that’s what many of our kids think. And recalling our own terrifying high-school memories of red-hot Bunsen burners and boiling-over beakers, we can definitely sympathize. Even in an age when high-tech gadgets are on every teen’s hip and ear, scientific curiosity rarely takes over. “Kids are embracing incredibly high technology, with their iPods, their cell phones and their computers. They’re using it, but they don’t seem to be interested in the fundamentals of how it works,” says Bob McDonald, host of CBC radio’s Quirks & Quarks, science correspondent for The National and author of two books related to children and science.
It’s certainly not a question of ability. Canadian students do consistently well on international tests and measures of scientific ability. “The test scores may be OK, but that’s not the only thing. There’s a negative attitude toward science during school years,” says Paul Cappon, president and CEO of the Ottawa-based nonprofit Canadian Council on Learning (CCL). Cappon points to a report released last year sponsored by the CCL, entitled “Who Likes Science and Why?,” which found that while more than 85 per cent of teenage students feel that science is useful for society, less than 40 per cent believe that they will use it — in any way whatsoever — in their careers. In addition, a 2001 study by Statistics Canada found that while 80 per cent of Grade 4 students enjoyed learning about science, this number dropped to 68 per cent by Grade 8, then down as low as 42 per cent (for chemistry) and 31 per cent (for physics) in high school.
Drawing a line forward to the present, it’s not surprising that a report released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) this year shows that while Canada tops the list of all OECD countries in terms of citizens holding university degrees and college diplomas, our nation ranks below the average of OECD countries in number of science graduates (per 100,000 employed people, aged 25 to 34). Social science, law and business programs produce nearly three times as many graduates as those emerging with a science degree. “Students find it difficult, and some are afraid of it. Also, science isn’t part of the youth culture, and that’s very important to understand,” says Cappon, who explains that studies in science just aren’t regarded as relevant or worthwhile to Canada’s young people.
Some of the trouble stems from the fact that science suffers from an image problem. “Science still has this stereotype of the geek, or the mad scientist with the crazy hair and the white lab coat and no life,” McDonald observes. “We need more cool role models.” And an even bigger issue, notes Reni Barlow, executive director of Youth Science Foundation Canada (which, among other things, coordinates and supports regional and national science fairs), is that school science can be very dry. “The classroom science experience is pretty canned. It comes out of a textbook — many of the activities that kids are asked to do, the results and the application often come out of the book, so there’s no challenge or surprise,” he says. Larry Bencze, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), agrees. “The system tells kids what they need to believe and learn, and doesn’t give them the opportunity to create their own conceptions of the world,” he says.
Brett Blackwood, 17, says that his experiences in high-school chemistry, physics and biology classes have been mixed. “If we’re just writing long notes off the blackboard or learning on our own by reading chapters from the textbook, that can be really boring,” says the student from Peterborough, Ont. “But if we’re doing hands-on experiments, it’s a lot more fun.” His brother Chris, 18, adds that “even an interesting demonstration is good,” noting with a chuckle, “maybe something with fire.” Both brothers say that a career in science is possible — Chris may choose engineering and Brett, professing a fascination with CSI-style investigation, might go into law enforcement. “I’m interested in finding out how things work and solving cases — that’s what I like about science,” he says.
Not everyone, of course, is inclined to be a scientist. But, says Cappon, the cause for alarm lies in the level of science illiteracy that is being perpetuated. “It’s a question of, “Do you want to understand the world in which you live, or are you just going to walk blindly through life, not understanding how anything works?,” he asks rhetorically. “My concern isn’t so much about how many kids enroll in science in university. It’s how many have science as part of their lives and are able to use it to help navigate their world.” Cappon, a father of two grown children, says that parents are absolutely key. “The family’s role is to support a science culture among the children, to induce them to think about science,” he says.
At a young age this can be quite easy, notes McDonald, because little kids have a natural sense of wonder and curiosity. “This is the message you need to communicate to your kids: The universe is a wonderful place — let’s go explore it. And then give them the tools to do it on their own.” Cappon adds that it’s never too early to start. “You can take a scientific approach at a very young age, meaning, let’s test this, let’s see how it works, let’s discuss it. How does a radio work? How does the TV work? Why do things blow up?,” he says. “If you don’t get this at a fairly young age, then I think you grow up thinking that it’s something that experts do and you don’t need to understand it.” Bonnie Schmidt, president of Let’s Talk Science, a charitable organization that endeavours to improve science literacy across Canada, adds that learning can happen on a trip to the park or during a casual chat. “It can be when they’re out in the playground, talking about how fast they can go down on the slide, and if this slide was flatter would they go faster or slower — that’s science in action, right then and there,” she says. “With my own daughter, we would just talk and explore things, and I could get the message out that science is pretty cool and that we can learn about the world if we understand science.”
And, says Schmidt, even surly teenagers can be guided into good decisions, as research shows that parents still exercise the greatest influence on their kids’ choice of high-school courses and post-secondary programs. Cappon notes that you can kindle some scientific curiosity in your teen by simply mentioning a current news story involving science and asking a couple of questions. And while a recent CCL survey has shown that two-thirds of Canadian parents do not feel capable of helping their children with their homework — a number that Cappon says is probably higher in science — he encourages parents to push through their fears. “The biggest threat is that people will give up because they think it’s too difficult,” he says, noting that a parent’s scientific knowledge can be aided by the wealth of resources available online. “My message to people is: Don’t be afraid and engage with your children — whether or not you understand it yourselves.”
Contributing editor Tim Johnson admits that science was not his favourite subject, but he loved doing experiments that involved explosions.