Monday, 28 February 2011

Why science policy needs science education

During the build-up to last year's election, I vaguely remember thinking about why science education wasn't being talked about more. Alom Shaha, as ever, made some good points about how it's easy for politicians representing science (education) to dismiss "science education" as a problem to be dealt with by their colleagues representing education (science). To be fair, there were (and still are) some very pressing issues in the #scipolicy arena: ensuring that there's funding to do any science is bit of a "biggie". But my gut feeling at the time was that science education should be a key part of the debate. I just couldn't put my finger on why.

Cue Alice Bell's excellent post from earlier today. In it, the age-old debate of depth-versus-breadth was discussed, triggered (I guess) by the Royal Society's recent call for a wider range of subjects to be taught at 16-19 so that more could pursue science for longer*. If I've grasped the right end of the proverbial stick, aiming for "depth" results in students who are well prepared for further study/careers in science. This is great for universities, who then don't have to spend as much time getting students "up to speed". But -- and here's the rub -- this specialisation comes at a cost. Those not specialising in science won't study any science at all, and those who do will only be taught the "content" demanded by universities.

What's wrong with this situation, if anything? Well, from what I've gathered of the #scipolicy movement, the goal is to have an electorate that understands the value of evidence-based policy, appreciates the value of science and technology to the economy, and, above all, appreciates that science, wonder and discovery are at the heart of everything that ultimately makes humanity tick. If you've (albeit unintentionally) isolated the vast majority of the electorate at school age, the only time you have everyone in one place, you're left with only the "scientists" fighting science's corner in the political ring. And while they're certainly starting to find their voice, it'd probably be better to have everyone on your side from the start, no?

And this is what Alice's post brought home to me. Universities won't be campaigning for a non-specialist "citizen scientist" curriculum. Which, from a #scipolicy perspective, is a Bad Thing. So who will be? Who should be? This is what I couldn't put my finger on back in April. It's great that the Royal Society has taken a step towards bringing attention to the issues surrounding citizen science -- even if this wasn't quite their intention -- but, for me at least, the issue of providing a "science education for all" really should be an intrinsic part of any campaign seeking to make science a permanent feature of the political landscape.

* Though I think the post had been brewing for a while :-)

UPDATE (31/3/2011): I attended the Science Question Time: Education last night. It wasn't quite the place to bring up discuss the points raised above -- the chair and the panel wisely (in my opinion) focussed on the challenges facing science teachers, and CaSE will have been listening carefully -- but as someone who "does science" with a passing interest in policy, the evening reinforced one major take-home point for me: science teachers work tremendously hard every day to actually teach science, converting the enthusiasm/wonder generated by science into something solid, and that we need to do all that we can to support them in doing this. I'd like to think that last night was an acknowledgement of that, so thanks again to all of the organisers, the panel, the chair and everyone who came along.

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