Value them, and they will come 2

Emma Brockes, in an attempt to critically examine the CBI’s recent assertion, which I commented on [link], that the fall in the numbers of students taking physics, engineering and technology at A and undergraduate levels over the last two or three decades, will result British industry having to either look abroad for people qualified enough in these areas to help to support it  or it will face a severe downturn, has written a thoughtful piece in the G2 [link] section of today’s Guardian

In answer to the implicit question of whether or not the fall in numbers is real of imagined, she has this to say:

….. the number of A-level entries in physics has halved since 1982 (55,000 in 1982 to 28,000 last year), while the numbers taking chemistry A-level have dropped by 37% in the same period. University departments of unpopular sciences keep closing, most prominently the chemistry department at Exeter University, but also parts of the chemistry departments at King’s College London, Queen Mary,University of London, and Swansea University; the physics departments at the University of Newcastle and Keele University; mathematics at the University of Hull and civil engineering at Aston University. The Institute of Physics states that, since 2001, 30% of university physics departments have either merged or closed. Only biology is safe and, as everybody knows, biology is science for girls.

So, these stark and, one has to say, startling figures give mean that we have good reasons for worrying about the future. The talent will be needed, and its not going to be there if these trends continue. Is there something is being done to buck the trends and get us back on course?

The question science educators are wrestling with, then, is how to increase the appeal of their discipline without compromising its basic content. This is actually two questions, says Daniel Sandford Smith, the long-suffering education manager at the Institute of Physics. He compares what’s happening to his subject to what happened years ago to that mother of all turn-offs, Classics, but, he explains – who says physicists can’t be controversial? – “In a sense Classics wasn’t going anywhere as a subject, whereas physics is still developing. It’s going to provide us with the answers to global warming; we’re going to have nanotechnology and get round the energy crisis … I think one of the problems is that students don’t understand how physics can lead to such a wide variety of careers, that are well paid as well.”

So it’s a simple matter of making the subject appealing, and the problem is how you do this.

 The two parts of this problem, he [Sandford Smith] says, are “one, about producing new scientists, and the other, about producing scientific literacy for all”. The kind of teaching and syllabus that suits one set of pupils, those for whom a career in science is an active possibility, might deter the other set. “Previously we had tried to do both those things in the same course with no differentiation,” says Sandford Smith. Now, with the introduction in September of new GCSEs, that is changing, and he thinks it is a good thing.

The remainder of the article is given over to examining whether the introduction of the new GCSEs is enough, and indeed what would be enough, to get more people studying in these areas.

My own opinion is that Sanford Smith hits the nail on the head when he says that we need to produce not only more scientists and but also more people who, even though they may never be scientists, and indeed may never wish to be scientists, are scientifically literate. The scientifically literate society is more likely to value the sciences than one that is not.  


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