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Many children are turned off science at an early age and will give up studying it as soon as possible. Oliver Nicholas looks into why this is so and how to get children interested in science


Put off by science?

It is not an over-exaggeration to say that scientific knowledge lies behind almost everything we do in our day-to-day life and, with the ever-increasing influence of technology, medical advances and eco concerns, this is becoming even more apparent.

It seems strange that, with so much science around us, we can merely accept how our iPods actually work, what happens when we send text messages or why paracetamol ‘cures’ headaches without asking the fundamental questions: why . . . what . . . how and what if.

When we hear the word “scientist” who can honestly say that it does not conjure up, even for a split second, the stereotype of a white-coated “boffin” playing with chemicals in a lab? As Jim Knight, the Schools’ Minister, recently said, there is a culture of “scepticism about science” in the UK. And it seems that our children are picking up those vibes.

Many children do not realise that a knowledge and understanding of science underpins many of the careers that they may choose in the future

In recent research funded by Shell UK and carried out by The Chemical Industry Education Centre at the University of York, a poll of 4,000 children aged between 9 and 14 asked children about their attitude towards science. The findings showed that a large proportion of children found science boring, confusing or difficult. The children were also asked whether they thought that science was needed for particular careers, with some interesting results. For example, 55% of children believed that no scientific knowledge was required to become a mechanic and an amazing 47% of children believed that no science was needed to become a plastic surgeon.

Many children do not realise that a knowledge and understanding of science underpins many of the careers that they may choose in the future and that by giving up science at an early age they can severely restrict their career options in the future.

Professor Wynne Harlen of the University of Bristol and Professor Peter Tymms of the University ofDurham believe that children’s interest in science and their understanding of it are being crushed by the compulsory Sats testing they sit at primary school. In their report, Perspectives on Education: Primary Science, published by the Wellcome Trust in September 2008, they argue that children are being taught to perform well in tests rather than having their “natural curiosity of science cultivated and harnessed.”

47% of children believed that no science was needed to become a plastic surgeon

Whilst the number of passes in Sats science continues to rise, children’s actual understanding of science has decreased since the 1970s. In support, they cite studies which show that England came 18th out of 26 countries for the self-confidence of itsnine and ten year olds in their ability to learn science. Furthermore, in a study of 300 primary school teachers, more than half admitted that they lacked confidence in teaching science.

A silver lining?

Fortunately, much has been made in the press about a recent revival of science subjects at university. More teenagers are starting to choose these subjects as a safer option for a well paid job on graduation now that many of the jobs that they would have aspired to in the past have been severely affected by the Credit Crunch.

Good things may also come out of the current economic depression with an influx of science graduates leaving the City to retrain as teachers. Last year, applications for science teaching posts reached record levels. It is hoped that these topgraduates, with practical experience of the business world, will help inspire scientists of the future. So, it’s not all bad!

How to get children interested?

The important thing is to tap in to children’s natural inquisitiveness and to spark their imagination. We can start this by encouraging children to ask questions. Why does this happen? How does this machine work? So, in conversations, use the vocabulary of science: why, what, how, what if and because, and encourage children to use them.

As a parent, you should not be worried that you may not know the answer yourself. Finding the answer to a question your child has asked by doing some research together can be a fun experience and has been made much easier by on-line encyclopaedias.Science is all about having a curious mind and observant eyes.

There are lots of activities to encourage these skills and attitudes.

Under 5s

Multi-sensory environments help children experience and process how things work:
  • Playing with building blocks to help an understanding of construction and whether things are e.g. hard, soft or waterproof.
  • Experiencing floating, sinking and bubbles at bathtime to understand the properties of water.
  • Seeing shadow puppets, reflections, mirrors, kaleidoscopes and spinning wheels for an understanding of colour and light. 
  • Hearing and feeling music and vibrations, e.g. tapping on plastic bottles filled with different amounts of water, sand or stones to appreciate sound.

Ages 5 – 8

Children also come to an understanding of the world by guessing and making predictions about what is happening. Predicting things is made easier if there is some sort of repetition or pattern.

Children can explore by trying to see or copy patterns in things they see happening around them:

  • Sorting different objects into groups and asking why are they in those groups? E.g. collecting and identifying seeds or bugs in the garden.

By this stage children will also be able to query how things work:

  • By looking at everyday objects like skateboards and bicycles they can start to look at how pulleys, levers, wheels, axles and screws make things easier.
  • Cooking together teaches the use of tools and the effects of heat on liquids and solids. Let them watch red cabbage change colour when lemon juice and bicarbonate of soda is added or allow food to go mouldy to understand the science of food. 
  • The games with light and sound for under 5s can be developed for older children by making things like periscopes, pinhole cameras and trombones from Pringles packets.

Older children

Older children need thought provoking games so they can continue to ask questions and make sense of the way things work: What am I looking at? What would happen if? How could I?

  • Encourage them to look at inventions that have changed the world and find a solution for things that don’t work efficiently at home. 
  • Let them become a forensic scientist, solving mysteries of imprints in the mud – Whose trainers fit the imprint?
  • Create a chemical reaction together by dropping Mentos sweets in a Diet Cola bottle!

Talk about what you thought would happen, what actually happened and whether you were surprised. The scientific brain will say: I think if we change . . . What might happen is this . . . because . . . These all develop the skills of observing, predicting, testing and drawing conclusions.

Don’t try and sanitise science. Keep the funny bits and the gory bits in especially when talking about the human body as they are often what inspire children the most. This all appeals to children’s appetite for grim details while keeping the magic and fun of science alive!

LINKS  - The Science Museum has hands-on exhibits, science nights, I-Max cinema and lots of events to inspire children plus resources on their website for things to do
- The Planet Science website provides free resources to children, teachers and parents with a collection of features, activities, online games and interactive material and information. Sponsored by – National Endowment of Science, Technology and the Arts

The Horrible Science collection of books and CDs’ titles range from Nasty Nature and Chemical Chaos to Blood, Bones and Body Bits. Giving fun explanations, the books also give ideas for experiments

For further ideas, look at our Creat Ed section