The Shell study Learning to Love Science says that children’s interest in science wanes after the age of 14.

The Shell study Learning to Love Science says that children’s interest in science wanes after the age of 14. Andrew Kelly of Bristol Cultural Development Partnership (BCDP) looks at the findings and how Bristol and the West of England is working to engage young people in the sciences.

Science is boring, irrelevant and too theoretical, according to Shell. It’s hard to get good grades. It starts by being inspirational, but you spend too much time in the laboratory and writing equations. Even if you do pass the exams and get a good degree, there’s better pay doing something else. If you do decide to get a job in science, you enter a male-dominated world, cut off from the rest of society. Little wonder that interest wanes after the age of 14. And, on top of this, there’s a national shortage of science teachers, especially in physics and maths, and morale among those who are in post is low.

Some of this is perception; some of it true. Science teaching and British science is certainly not in crisis. We do need more and better-qualified teachers, but more students need to be interested in the subject before that will happen.

We need to make science more relevant, exciting and inspirational. This is not just of interest to schools: it’s essential for our economy, which is increasingly based on the creation and exploitation of ideas, and greater scientific literacy for all will mean better participation in the critical debates that affect our future.

I underperformed in science at school (I underperformed at school, full stop). My views about science then were the same as the young people that Shell interviewed. It was simply too difficult. Recently, science has come to play a much more significant role for me.

Bristol sees science as important and in many ways leads the country in science education and engagement. BCDP sees science as part of culture. We helped create At-Bristol, celebrated Brunel’s great engineering achievements in 2006 and are currently planning major work around the centenary of the Bristol Aeroplane Company in 2010 (BAC 100). It’s why we are heavily involved in Science City Bristol, which is working to bring together business, education and government to make the West of England world-class in scientific enterprise and research, and promote greater celebration of science and technology.

How do we make science more relevant and inspirational? Changes to the curriculum are long overdue and the creation of new projects that offer different forms of learning are essential. It’s long been accepted that the secondary school curriculum had become too narrow and restrictive: we generally find it easy to get primary schools involved in projects, but not secondary schools. The new GCSE courses allow a greater range of options, including ‘How Science Works’, the study of the process of science and its relationship to society. Teacher development through the Science Learning Centres (one is in At-Bristol) will mean better education in the future.

Project-based work, and the involvement of businesses and scientists, will allow greater inspiration. We also need good role models, even celebrities. There’s a lesson here from the rapid growth of the creative industries in recent years. It’s an exciting world in design, film, television and digital media. Traditional science – maths, chemistry, engineering and physics – looks nerdy and geeky in contrast. When we ran Brunel 200 I asked many engineers to give me the name of one person who stands out, that we could put on television. It was easy to name architects, but not engineers. And yet Brunel was the David Beckham of his day, in terms of celebrity status, when science and engineering had a much higher profile.

West of England companies like Rolls-Royce and Airbus work actively in schools. One of the most exciting Brunel 200 projects was the one led by Rolls-Royce engineers with school children looking at future transport. Science here was exciting and relevant. A pilot project led by BAC 100 with Science City Bristol next year will provide low-cost and low-risk learning programmes inspired by the notion of flight, led by artists and engineers.

Enthusiasm is also essential. BioBlitz, another Science City pilot project running next summer with the Bristol Natural History Consortium, will look in detail at the environment of a small natural yet urban space and show creatively the natural environment of the city and the value of learning about biology in the field, the protection of wildlife and wild spaces and the impact of climate change. This will be an energetic project, run for just 24 hours, but with major long-term potential.

Learning through school is important; learning throughout life can also have important results. Bristol is one of the most active cities in public science engagement – through the Science Cafes, the Wildscreen festival and the Bristol Festival of Nature, as well as the public lectures and debates that form part of the Festival of Ideas.

Our universities’ outreach activities include working alongside teachers and using a mobile unit to engage imaginatively with young people on chemistry, anatomy and physiology. The impact of work such as this helped Bristol University and the University of the West of England succeed in their joint bid to set up the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement. Inspirational scientists with a national profile such as Kathy Sykes and Alice Roberts – both academics at Bristol University – help raise the level of debate. The annual Science Alive! festival in Broadmead, and Bath Taps into Science run by the Universities of Bristol and Bath respectively, are regular fixtures during National Science and Engineering Week, attracting increasing interest from schools and the public.

No one I work with questions the view that science is sometimes hard to communicate. Science is always in the news, but it tends to be the big ethical debates like stem-cell research and big science like the particle accelerator at CERN and the landing of the Phoenix on Mars (both of which Bristol University is involved in, incidentally) that make the front pages. It’s quite another to engage successfully on aspects of science that seem less glamorous. The trick is not to give up just because communicating well about science can be a challenge. Many people in Bristol and further afield have risen to this challenge and are optimistic about the future of science education. It’s an exciting time to be learning about and working in science.

About the author/

Andrew Kelly is Director of Bristol Cultural Development Partnership. He founded and led At-Bristol; Brief and Animated Encounters Festivals and Digital Arts Development Agency, and is currently Director of the Bristol Great Reading Adventure and the Bristol Festival of Ideas. He is the author of 12 books. He is currently directing projects on Charles Darwin, and BAC 100, which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bristol Aeroplane Company in 1910.

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