School teaching of maths and sciences is in crisis, but there’s plenty that can be done to inspire the brightest and best from a young age, Oxford alumni and academics tell Helen Massy-Beresford.
By Helen Massy-Beresford
What do a sewage worker inspecting an underground aqueduct, a blackcurrant-flavoured cloud and the life of Charles Darwin have in common? They are all part of efforts by Oxford alumni and professors to encourage more young people to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as the STEM subjects.
Science teaching in schools is suffering from a shortage of teachers with science degrees and increasing pressure to achieve the right exam results by sticking rigidly to the syllabus. The effects are seen both in the numbers of students choosing to study science as well as their level when they reach university. Oxford and its alumni are focusing their efforts on younger age groups in a bid to help.
Professor Povey’s Perplexing Problems, by Thomas Povey (St Catherine’s, 1996), is a collection of problems aimed at students who have studied science and maths to A-level. ‘Too many books are focused on getting students through exams efficiently rather than on simply celebrating a subject and inspiring students to stretch themselves,’ says Povey, who dates his interest in science back to making gunpowder for fireworks aged ten and is now a Tutorial Fellow in Engineering and Professor of Engineering Science at University College.
The problems include the aforementioned sewage worker, who wants to climb a ladder inside a circular pipe — demanding from Povey’s readers a grasp of potential energy and free-body diagrams. Such problems introduce important concepts in classical physics that rely on maths introduced near the end of the A-level course.
‘It’s the time at which students make the difficult decision about what course to study at university. I almost studied Fine Art at university, but was swayed by seeing some amazing physics demonstrations at open days,’ Povey explains.
Dr Sarah Bearchell (below right; St Catherine’s, 1991) is a freelance science educator and a STEM ambassador helping to spark primary school children’s enthusiasm for science with demonstrations including blackcurrant-flavoured clouds (made from dry ice and blackcurrant squash) that teach them about solids, liquids and gases.
She believes that science teaching in the UK suffers from a lack of relevant qualifications among primary school teachers — only around five per cent of primary school teachers have a science-related degree — combined with huge workloads and rigid curriculum targets that leave them precious little time for devising projects and experiments.
‘So many children don’t have the opportunity to explore science,’ she says. ‘It would be fabulous to have a scheme whereby every primary and senior school had a sort of “pet scientist” they could call on,’ she says. ‘It’s not about getting numbers of children in scientific careers — it’s about giving children the confidence that they can understand and question science and challenge ideas.’
Povey also believes that a focus on exam grades and modular teaching has damaged science in schools. ‘The modular system has encouraged a superficial approach to study, and teaching for exams has stripped all the fun and exploration out of subjects. We now have a mediocracy, where especially in state schools any resource expended beyond getting a student an A* is not rewarded.’
More qualified teachers are needed at secondary school age too, Povey believes. ‘The key to engaging children at any age is teachers that can bring a subject to life, and infect the classroom with a sense of playfulness and curiosity which makes the students want to really understand the material. The Russell Group recently published a report which shows that only 30 per cent of high school physics teachers in state schools have a degree in physics. It is no wonder that the Department for Education refers to a crisis in STEM subjects. In independent schools in the UK, 80 per cent of physics teachers have a degree in physics, and the A-level results are correspondingly better.’
Isabel Thomas (below left; Mansfield, 1998), author of The Misadventures of Charles Darwin (OUP, 2015), as well as more than 100 other children’s books, agrees that science teaching in primary schools is suffering, both from a lack of qualified teachers and from increasing pressure on staff.
‘It takes a lot of effort for teachers to plan an investigation — so it’s something that happens occasionally. Teachers are under enormous pressure and it’s unrealistic to think they have time to dig into the latest research on a topic even if they’re covering it in class.’
That’s where books can provide an age-appropriate overview of a topic, a basis for structured activities or experiments. ‘I’d be the first to say that science can’t be learned from books alone. Children are born like little scientists, used to experimenting through play to find out about the world. But primary science needs to support and develop that and give children the tools to structure their questions so it’s not just free-for-all investigation.’
Children are interested in science, she says. ‘But they wouldn’t necessarily describe it as science. Teaching at primary level and science books can really capture that natural enthusiasm and build on it. It’s a real opportunity to get them hooked at a young age.’
Next week: Solve a trio of perplexing new problems to win a signed copy of Professor Povey’s book
Coming soon: Science author Isabel Thomas on why children are harder to please than dons, and STEM ambassador Sarah Bearchell on the classroom magic of fake poo.
Also at Oxford Today: Thomas Povey’s innovative flare pan invention
Main image © In Tune, via Shutterstock. Book jacket © Oneworld Publications. Portraits courtesy of Dr Sarah Bearchell and Isabel Thomas.