Why should (all) students learn science?

Over August I spent two days at the final PARRISE conference in Dublin. PARRISE is an EU funded project with the noble aim of integrating responsible research and innovation into teacher professional development. I was blown away by the passion and expertise of the delegates and presenters from 11 countries. Everyone was open to share, discuss and debate what had been achieved over the past 4-years and everyone’s enthusiasm and drive to improve science education was inspiring.

Now, I should probably point out that I am an inquiry sceptic, primarily because I think we lack the evidence base to justify the significant financial and temporal investment that has been committed so far. But, this is not the time to debate whether inquiry works – we have a much more pressing question: what is the purpose of science education? The reason this question matters so much is because we can’t evaluate different pedagogies unless we know what we want to evaluate them against.

Traditional thinking puts the aims of science education into four main camps (for a detailed review see Good practice in science teaching: what research has to say). Seeing as we learn best by examples, I am going to use this rainy photograph of Dublin airport as a stimulus to help me summarise why students should learn science.

1. The utilitarian argument

We need to learn science because we need to know how to do certain things during our life e.g. wire a plug or make up baby formula. This extends to knowing how to use the scientific method.

e.g. pilots need to know that they should wear sun cream when flying.

The problem is, there is some good evidence to suggest that scientists don’t use science to inform their lives – doctors know smoking is bad for them but many still smoke!

2. The economic argument

The country needs science education because we need scientists – science education is about developing a pipeline of science and engineering talent. This makes perfect sense, but only about 20% of students will go on to work in science so what about the remaining 80%?

e.g. Ireland needs aircraft engineers to build a successful aviation industry and so we need to teach the necessary skills and knowledge in school so that students can progress onto an engineering course.

3. The democratic argument

We need to know about science so that we can make informed choices when we are required to take part in a democratic process or debate. Not all innovation is good and we need to be able to discern the good from the bad.

e.g. members of a village need to be able to understand the evidence for and against a proposed new runway so that they can exercise their democratic right to object.

4. The cultural argument

We need to understand that scientific ideas are hard won and students need to know the stories behind the great scientific discoveries of the past. This will interest students and prevent them from being ignorant and alienated from modern scientific culture and ensure that society doesn’t lose sense of its identity.

e.g. students should appreciate the creative, human endeavour involved in manned flight, so that they develop a deeper understanding of what science has achieved.

It’s not what you know, it’s what you know and do with it that counts

So, what do I think? Well, I’m thinking a few things. Firstly, everyone must have the opportunity to understand the same fundamental scientific principles that govern the world around us. Matter is made from atoms, energy is not created or destroyed – in essence, people should understand the big ideas of science. The reason everyone needs to understand these ideas is because so many other ideas in modern life extend from them. Knowledge builds on knowledge and if we don’t lay the foundations for a scientific understanding at school, then learning new ideas later, many of which will depend on scientific ones, becomes difficult.

But this is just the start. This body of knowledge must inform our values and the subsequent actions we take e.g. becoming an engineer, finding out why ears pop at altitude or leading you to take the train and not the plane; otherwise, what is the point of all this knowledge?

And this is the challenge for science education and educators: a form of the knowing-doing gap. Which pedagogies are better in supporting students to act? What actions are students taking and are these actions beneficial to the individual, society or both? Oh, and I would be interested to know how many pilots apply sun cream.

Further reading
  1. Why students should learn science
  2. CPD for science teachers – getting the right feedback
  3. The science curriculum – designing what matters 
  4. Next steps for beginning science teachers
  5. Essential reads for science teachers
  6. A timeline of science education in England
  7. Useful websites for science teachers