Without scientists pushing boundaries, the world would be a very different place. Many of the things we take for granted just would not exist. So how do you convince young people to pursue a career in science and chemistry? It’s a problem for many countries. But planet earth needs scientists if it is to tackle global poverty and global climate change.
There’s no doubting that Albert Einstein was a genius.
The German-born American physicist may not have learned to swim, but he turned the world upside down with his theory of relativity.
Say ‘Einstein’ to the man in the street, though, and he sees ‘an old man, with piercing eyes, wild grey hair in a crumpled laboratory coat’.
And that is part of science’s problem.
“To many people, science looks like an old man’s game, but it isn’t,” Professor Brian Cox said during a recent interview with a British national newspaper. “Most of the science in the UK is done by people in their 20s. Even Einstein did all his world-changing work when he was a young, good-looking man who drank and misbehaved a bit. So it’s possible to do both.”
Professor Cox, a former pop star who had a hit in the 1990s with D:Ream and Things Can Only Get Better, is passionate about opening up science to the masses in the UK.
Last year he presented five BBC programmes, entitled Wonders of Life, in which he revealed how a few fundamental laws of science gave birth to life. Beth Regan, a publicist at BBC Factual in the UK, said the series attracted an average of almost three million viewers.
“Broadcasters have a big responsibility to rebuild the image of science,” Professor Cox told Daily Telegraph journalist Bryony Gordon. “They need to show that it is not necessarily a game just for super genius people either.”
Recent research by King’s College London found that many British children aged 10 to 14 would rather be hairdressers or beauticians than scientists. Although they agreed science was interesting and felt that scientists made a difference in the world, they saw it as a career for ‘highly-talented geeks’ only.
“Liking science clearly is not enough,” said Professor Louise Archer, director of the ASPIRES study which presented the findings of the five-year UK Government Department of Education & Professional Studies report.
But she felt the negative views of school science and scientists were not the problem. The issue, she said, was a lack of awareness of where science could lead.
“Most science qualifications were seen to lead only to jobs as a scientist, a science teacher or a doctor,” she said.
Many governments and organisations throughout the world are concerned that not enough young people are opting to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) after the age of 16.
It has become an international priority issue for governments and industry with widespread concern about the knock-on effects on a country’s ability to compete and innovate in a global economy.
“National governments are striving to improve the competitiveness of their countries and, with few exceptions, are emphasising the key role STEM industries have in helping them to achieve their goals,” said Derek Bell, Professor of Education, College of Teachers.
Professor Bell was speaking at a global conference of science academies. In all 100-plus delegates from 58 countries came to hear what could be done to improve science education.
That was in 2012. Five years earlier The European Commission had warned that there had been an ‘alarming decline’ in young people’s interest in science and mathematics in Europe. It said despite efforts to reverse the trend, any signs of improvement had been modest, and feared Europe’s long-term ability to innovate and remain competitive would be damaged unless more effective action were taken.
One of its recommendations was to radically change the way science was taught in primary and secondary schools to a more inquiry-based style.
Since then more and more countries have adopted inquiry-based science education, a method of teaching which encourages pupils to pose the questions.
In Germany, where inquiry-based science education is now part of the curriculum in many schools, INEOS in Köln is very much in the driving seat.
“Since 2008 we have formed strong, well-established, long-term partnerships with 23 primary and eight secondary schools which have adopted the TuWaS! programme,” said Dr Anne-Gret Iturriaga Abarzua, communications manager at INEOS in Köln. “We understand the need to bring relevance to the school curriculum with visits to our sites and employees in the classroom. These partnerships help us as a company, as an industry and also as a developed industrial country to attract young people – especially girls – who are curious, enthusiastic and motivated to make the world a better place through science.”
So far, four German states have adopted the TuWaS! programme for children aged 6 to 12. The programme was founded by Freie Universität Berlin Professor Dr Petra Skiebe-Corrette after she had seen a similar model working wonders in Sweden.
Teachers attend a one-day seminar during which they are taught the natural science and technical experiments first. They then return to the classroom, armed with a school year’s worth of experiments and the confidence to teach them.
INEOS in Köln is the biggest financial supporter in the Rhineland sponsoring almost half of the 70 schools which have adopted the TuWaS! programme. INEOS employees act as ambassadors, and have so far reached more than 6,000 children.
“The TuWaS! programme forces children to ask questions rather than receive ready-made answers,” said Andreas Niessen, dean of the Geschwister-Scholl-Gymnasium in Pulheim.
At a global academies conference in Finland in 2012, Anne-Gret was invited to speak about how science education and industry could successfully work together.
“It was the first time that someone from industry had actually been invited to speak at their conference,” she said.
Inquiry-based science education owes its existence to America, where it originated, but the US is also facing an uphill battle in selling science to the masses.
In June this year Lisa Coico, President of the City College of New York, said that she was concerned about the dearth of American high school students wanting to major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“There is much more to the STEM disciplines than memorisation of formulas and mind-numbing repetitive calculations,” she said. “These fields are on the front line of addressing the most significant challenges facing society, from climate change to environmental health and diseases to next-generation computing and communication technology.”
To try to address the decline, the city college has adopted a holistic approach to learning created by the Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Center.
“When we expose students early on to what STEM professionals do, the more likely they will be interested in becoming scientists, engineers, physicians, and more,” she said.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by the year 2018 there will be 1.2 million new job opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics but fears there will be a significant shortage of qualified college graduates to fill those jobs.
Dennis Seith, CEO of INEOS O&P USA, is a member of the Texas A&M University Engineering Council, which is working with the dean of engineering to define industry’s needs and work on teaching methods. The goal is to enrol 25,000 engineering students by 2025 – twice the current number of students signing up.
INEOS O&P USA has also set up an initiative to increase INEOS’ access to talent by cultivating relationships with local regional technical schools and training centres and is already helping to develop skills internally by taking on apprentices.
It all helps.
As a company which needs a continuous supply of highly-skilled, highly disciplined employees, INEOS cannot afford to ignore the problem. Nor is it.
At INEOS’ Grangemouth site in Scotland in the UK, INEOS organises a major, two-week Science Engineering and Technology Fair every year, where 2,000 local children are able to gain hands-on experience of science and engineering.
“It’s the best way to get young people excited about engineering and manufacturing and dispel any preconceptions that they have about science being a ‘boring’ career,” said Tom Crotty, Corporate Affairs Director.
In addition, every year the Royal Society of Chemistry organises the UK Chemistry Olympiad for pupils in the UK, and INEOS has been sponsoring the competition since 2007 to help inspire the next generation to take up science as a career.
“INEOS’ support has enabled us to significantly widen participation in the competition,” said Jim Iley, Director of Science and Education at the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Others are also driving home the message that science is cool.
Elise Andrew launched website www.iflscience.com when she was in her final year of her biology degree at Sheffield University in the UK in March 2012 and in October last year told The Guardian newspaper: “I love that science can never be finished. In science every question answered leads to two more.”
Someone who wouldn’t argue with that is Professor Dave Charlton at CERN near Geneva in Switzerland. He said he hoped the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson – the so-called ‘God particle’ – would help to inspire a new generation of physicists and scientists.
“At CERN we are always keen to explain our science, and how we do it, to non-experts because an understanding of the methods and concepts of science lies at the basis of our society,” he said.
Crisis? What crisis? asks China
Science does not have an image problem in China which is now the second biggest economy in the world.
A recent report by America’s National Science Board found that over the past 20 years, China had been devoting more and more money to science and technology.
In 2011 China became the largest Patent office in the world with 526,000 applications being filed, compared to the USA which in the same year filed some 503,000 applications. And the gap continues to widen.
Suwatchai Songwanich, CEO Bangkok Bank, said in a recent article for The Nation Multimedia Group that China’s goal was to be a leader in science education and that China viewed science and technology as critically important to its economic success.
“The goal is to transform China from an industrial society into an innovative society,” he wrote. “And one way the government plans to achieve this is to greatly increase the level of investment in research and development, with a target of R&D contributing 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2020.”