Science Failing to Inspire Canadian Youth

By Peter Calamai
RE$EARCH MONEY, Opinion Leader
September 1, 2010
A disturbing contradiction mars the involvement of young Canadians with science. Of the 57 countries which participated in the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) only the youth in Finland and Hong Kong outperformed Canada’s young people on scientific questions. Yet fast forward a few years beyond high school and Canada ranks 24th out of 35 nations in the percentage of students graduating from university with a science or engineering degree. True, the U.S. ranked 31st in the 2009 OECD scorecard, but the U.K. ranked 17th while European Union countries together were in 19th place.

This failure to capitalize on the scientific interest and abilities of young Canadians would appear to be a significant impediment to the federal government’s science and technology strategy, which depends on having the world’s best educated, most skilled and most flexible workforce. Perhaps more troubling are the implications for a public capable of intelligent and informed discussion about the many crucial policy questions with a science dimension facing the country.

Which such high stakes it is distressing that little rigorous empirical research has been carried out into the science culture of Canada’s youth – their exposure to science at home, school and the wider public realm, their attitudes toward science and the role which they see science playing in their lives.
Now, thanks to a study commissioned by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and carried out by Ipsos Reid there is an initial trove of valuable data and what should be the baseline of an even more valuable time series to track the effects of any policy initiatives. The Canadian Youth Science monitor, released June 7 on the CFI and Ipsos Reid websites, is based on responses earlier this year from 2,605 youth aged 12 to 18. It was inspired by a 2008 study from the UK overseen by the Wellcome Trust.

“Causes for Concern”
The findings of the Youth Science Monitor deserve to be examined in detail but even a cursory glance confirms that there are significant policy implications. The secretary of state for science, Gary Goodyear, signaled “causes for concern” in the study when speaking this July at a meeting in Quebec of provincial and territorial ministers responsible for innovation:

“It is imperative that employees are well prepared for the economy of tomorrow. To get there we have to have youth interested in science at a very young age. At the moment that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

“For example: more than half of Canadian youth are not interested in working in a scientific field. Perhaps even more alarming: those that are “not at all” interested (21%) outweigh those who are “very interested” (15%). The survey also noted that the proportion of youth interested in pursuing a scientific career declines significantly with age. This lack of interest in science has a ripple effect up the educational food chain.”

A Fixable Problem
Perhaps understandably Goodyear did not mention the prime conclusions of the Ipsos Reid report since they point to failings in science education in secondary school as a crucial – and fixable – problem. But highlighting that would evoke the constitutional bugbear of federal-provincial division of powers that has so long hampered attempts to forge national strategies on innovation and much else.

Yet the findings of the Youth Science Monitor clearly indicated that until the issue of science education in secondary schools is addressed at a national level, Canada will continue to languish as a middle player, unable to emerge as a science and technology powerhouse.

To quote from the conclusions: “A window of opportunity for nurturing an interest in science among 12 to 13 year olds… is being missed. Efforts to promote interest and engagement in the sciences that take place in the latter years of secondary school education arrive too late; programs that seek to engage middle school students through a compelling, hands-on introduction to science, accompanied by high-quality teaching, are likely to meet with greater success.”

Of course, other factors are also important in remedying the decline between the promising PISA scores and the 24th-place OECD standing, between the excitement and interest which Canadian young people show about science in elementary school and the dramatic drop-off which occurs as they progress through high school. The Youth Science Monitor also found evidence that promoting science to parents as a cornerstone of their children’s education “could serve longer-term efforts to build a culture in which science is valued and prioritized, and increasingly chosen as a field of study beyond high school.”

But even the best schools, teachers and parents will not by themselves ensure that young people become more interested in science, concludes a detailed analysis of the Monitor findings, unless the young people also consider science as fun, cool, interesting, inspiring and important. The good news is that a large segment (25%) of Canadian youth already has such perceptions. Ipsos Reid dubbed these the Young Omnivores because they tend to be younger (12 to 13 years of age) and express enthusiasm for both scientific and non-scientific subjects in school. The challenge is to retain an enthusiasm for science that new tends to dissipate in favor of other fields of study.

A key question raised by the Monitor findings is whether our schools, and our entire culture, stream children away from science at too young an age by forcing them to make career decisions after Grade 10 – before they have been exposed to any of the real excitement of physics, chemistry, or biology in the classroom, taught by teachers who are specialists in the subjects.

This is a complex matter, that requires serious discussion in fora across the country, from local parents councils, through teachers colleges, at education ministries and eventually at the federal-provincial table. It is not enough for the federal government to proudly laud a $10.7 billion-plus annual investment in Canada’s science and technology enterprise.

Any future S&T strategy must include provisions to ensure the next generation of young Canadians will be both inspired and excited about the possibilities that a solid science education provides.

Peter Calamai is a veteran science journalist based in Ottawa who supervised the Canada Youth Science Monitor for the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

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