The school science curriculum needs input from real, working scientists

Science teaching needs to engage all pupils, whether they’re future scientists or not. Shutterstock

School science education is important for those who want to pursue a career in the sciences – and for those who don’t. Sadly, the first category seems to have been the main target for those designing science curricula. Their aim has been quite narrow: to lay a foundation for pupils so that they keep studying with the goal of becoming professional scientists.

But increasingly the second category of students – who aren’t interested in becoming professional scientists – has become more important in the eyes of curriculum designers. This shift has been encouraged by the recognition of science’s increasing influence on everyone’s lives. Many jobs now require science as a knowledge area. For example, technicians who monitor the quality of a town’s water supply may be trained in routine chemical analysis but they also need an understanding of chemistry when the instruments show readings that are not in the manual.

The trend towards educating science-literate citizens is well illustrated by the recommendation in a 2006 report on science education in Europe which stated:

The primary goal of science education across the EU should be to educate students both about the major explanations of the material world that science offers and about the way science works. Science courses whose basic aim is to provide a foundational education for future scientists and engineers should be optional.

The distinction that’s being made here is between “normal science education” and “science education for all”. This is the difference between preparing a minority of pupils for tertiary-level science and educating all pupils to deal confidently with a society that runs on applications of science knowledge and the steady flow of science information in the media.

“Normal science education”

“Normal science education” characterises normal science as puzzle-solving within a framework of established paradigms. This leads to school science curricula that support “normal science” and which, according to Dutch university chemistry teacher Bernard van Berkel tend to be isolated from common sense, everyday life and society.

These curricula are also removed from the history and philosophy of science, other sciences, technology and contemporary research.

This suboptimal state of affairs is reflected in surveys of learners’ views about the relevance of science education. In one, the Relevance of Science Education project, there’s a general recognition among participants that science has great benefits for society. This view is held particularly strongly among learners in developing countries. Six countries in the survey were from Africa: Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland.

Children in Cameroon get to grips with a science lesson. Wits School of Education

In response to the statement “I would like to become a scientist” less than 40% of learners in developed countries agreed, while 70% of those from developing countries did.

The survey report notes that in poor countries “everybody” wants to become a scientist or to work with technology. But very few get the opportunity.

Science education for all

The idea of “science education for all” is linked to the concept of scientific literacy and public understanding of science. The aim is to prepare future citizens to function more effectively in an increasingly science-driven future.

Examples of how several countries are moving in this direction can be found in their science curriculum documents, even though some of their existing science curricula remain firmly “normal”.

The challenge is to develop curricula that are suited to the goal of scientific literacy. One way of expressing this is:

The capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human activity.

School curricula have been developed for this purpose in the US and Germany, for example. Science that students learn in context – rather than science as isolated knowledge items – can deliver both scientific literacy and positive learner interest.

It is evident that the contexts must have relevance to national circumstances. They cannot be taken thoughtlessly from Europe or the US. But some contexts – water and the hydrosphere, or mining and mineral processing – can suit many countries.

Challenges and opportunities in Africa

Berhanu Abegaz, the executive director of the African Academy of Sciences, has highlighted the lack of relevance of most teaching materials, the need to encourage critical thinking and to equip learners to tackle complex issues such as environmental, energy-based and economic questions.

Abegaz has focused on the challenging character of chemistry education and research in Africa. But his insights can be applied to other sciences too.

There is clearly a case for school science curricula that provide science education for all and recognise that scientific awareness in rapidly developing societies depends on being practically involved with science.

Abegaz remains optimistic despite the challenges. He notes that Africa has youth on its side. This “makes investment crucial: to provide good-quality, relevant education which will lead to employment opportunities”.

Many scientists in Africa are interested in improving school science. They may not have pedagogical expertise. But this is input that educators can provide. Scientists have something different to contribute – up-to-date school science for budding professionals. They can also get involved by encouraging and advising on science curricula for a wider range of pupils.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Science Policy Africa, the newsletter of the African Academy of Sciences.