Pupil views of the Relevance of Science Education

A survey on the Relevance of Science Education (ROSE) has been conducted with 14-15 year old pupils in over 40 countries internationally. We applied this study to a large and diverse sample of S3 pupils in 92 schools across Scotland. The conclusions provide evidence reinforcing the concerns that have been expressed, whilst also suggesting strategies that might be adopted to improve the situation. We have also carried out a smaller scale study of younger pupils (mainly at the P6 stage) which suggests that carefully designed interventions beginning at this age might prove fertile.  Moira Finlayson worked as Coordinator for both studies.



The main study - survey of S3 pupils in Scotland:

We believe there are significant messages in the data that could usefully inform reviews of science and technology curricula, and the most fruitful approaches to their delivery.

 Overall picture

  • international comparisons: the sample-averaged responses from Scotland are broadly similar to those from developed countries in general, quite close to those from England, and closest of all to those from Northern Ireland.
  • views are net negative overall: the survey reflects what many will regard as, overall, disappointingly negative views of science & technology, and of learning experienced at school.
  • variation by gender: girls are on the whole rather more negative about science, and especially technology, and they have somewhat different relative preferences and attitudes.

 Social, economic, domestic and school background

  • significance of the number of books at home: the only question in the survey related to individual circumstances was to estimate the number of books in the pupil’s home - the answers given correlate, more strongly than any other indicator we have studied, to very significant differences in attitudes to and interests in science.
  • limited relevance of school free meals indicator, or geographic area: overall interest in science seems little related to the social catchment of the school as reflected in the percentage of pupils eligible for free meals, and preliminary study reveal little difference between pupils in Glasgow and those in the Highlands.
  • evidence of a ‘class effect’: some class groups responded much more positively (or negatively) than apparently similar classes in other schools - this might reflect the impact of a teacher, the school, or a particular peer group influence and is worthy of further study.

Attitudes to science, technology and the environment

  • doubts about whether science is net beneficial: by a small majority, overall, pupils did not agree that “the benefits of science are greater than the harmful effects it could have.
  • lack of trust in scientists: under 17% of pupils felt able to agree that “we should always trust what scientists have to say” – we regard this as perhaps the crucial obstacle for those seeking to enhance public understanding of science, and a wakeup call to the profession for scientific controversies to be debated in more carefully measured and objective terms.
  • significance of environmental problems: there is a strong recognition of the importance of environmental threats, that addressing these is everyone’s business and that actions required may involve “big changes in our way of living”.
  • . . but environmental sacrifices are for others: in juxtaposition to the last point, pupils would not support solutions involving “sacrifice of many goods” nor was there much interest in learning more about environmental issues, let alone in careers in this area
  • opposition to animal research: only 36% of pupils agreed that it was right to “use animals in medical experiments if this can save humans” and 72% think that animals should have the same rights as people.

Interest in learning about science

  • a disappointing overall level of interest: asked about their interest in ‘learning about’ each of 108 topics covering a very wide range of applications of science, negative (‘not interested’) responses outnumbered positive reactions.
  • topics with a personal or human interest dimension attract much more positive interest: seven of the ‘top ten’ most favoured topics concerned human health and condition, and the other three had dimensions related to potentially exciting personal experiences.
  • space topics rated second in overall interest: though here there were substantial differences with gender, course of study and the number of books at home.
  • the topics rated as most uninteresting of all included the study of manufacturing technologies, the lives of famous scientists, and anything to do with plants or cultivation methods.

Reactions to science at school

  • not engaging less able pupils: in general, the school science topics studied in preparation for thee examinations to be taken in as4 provided little motivational interest for the pupils surveyed.
  • sciences had a low general rating relative to other subjects: only amongst those studying all three science subjects did a majority “like school science better than most other subjects”.
  • impact of the scientific approach: only those studying both physics and chemistry, and in the highest ‘books at home’ categories have majorities accepting that school science has taught them to think more critically.
  • negative reaction to primary science: pupils rated the primary school science they had experienced as neither interesting
    nor serving as a good preparation for their secondary science.
  • support for more practical work: there was very strong support for the benefits of practical work, and a view that expanding practical programmes was likely to increase interest in school science.

Career ambitions

  • pupils attached priority to job satisfaction: pupils as a whole ranked very highly the importance of a ‘meaningful’ job, in keeping with their attitudes, making use of their abilities, building their skills and allowing an element of autonomy – these factors were somewhat less stressed by those with fewest books at home or studying less demanding courses.
  • the importance of life outside of work: the only factor outweighing the above issues for almost all groups was making ‘lots of money’; also of general high priority was that work should leave plenty of time to spend with family, friends and also on their hobbies and activities.
  • low interest in STEM-based careers: huge overall majorities rejected the idea of becoming “a scientist” and girls were equally averse to “a job in technology” – for the first proposition only the three science group gave a net positive response and, for the second, only those taking physics plus chemistry.
  • two distinctive factors for boys with fewest books at home: this group ranked “becoming the boss” and “working with machines or tools” substantially more highly than pupils as a whole.

The extension survey for upper primary pupils

  • To address gender imbalances – start early:  at S3 level we found very large gender imbalances in interest in technology and physical science areas;  these were viewed very negatively by the majority of girls. These gender differences are almost absent in the primary survey, though there remain differences between boys and girls as to which specific topics are relatively more favoured.
  • Emergence of the influence of books:   our S3 study identified a quite dramatic correlation between positive interest and attitudes and a pupil’s estimate of the number of books in their home. Such a correlation was still present but was very much weaker for primary pupils.
  • A school’s social catchment is not a barrier:  the catchment area of a school, as indicated by its Free School Meals Entitlement, has no significant bearing on a class’s overall interest in science.
  • Considerable class cohort effects were found:  on analysing the mean results from each different class group, the variations found were very much larger than could have arisen by chance:  whether this is due to internal peer group influences, or to a particular teacher or school ethos, we cannot be sure. We recommend further research on this issue.
  • The overall level of interest in science is somewhat higher among primary pupils:  many commentators have stated that interest in science peaks at primary age before declining as pupils progress further. Our surveys support this view, though the overall difference is not large. Mean Likert scores registering interest are typically 0.10 higher for our primary sample than for the same questions posed at S3 level. This corresponds to roughly a 5% “swing” in the relative proportions of positive and negative responses between the ages of 10 and 14.
  • The survey gives a green light to introducing "science issues" in upper primary:  in terms of “opinions about science and technology,” however, the difference between primary and secondary survey responses is somewhat greater, suggesting that a (carefully designed) “science for citizenship” educational strand could usefully begin at the upper primary stage.
  • Science as axperienced in primary school  rated as unpopular relative to other subjects:  in both the primary and the S3 surveys, the statement “I like school science better than most other subjects” was disagreed with by the great majority of pupils. There is a clear correlation between individual responses to this statement and overall interest expressed in science topics, though these differences group-by-group were not as extreme as might have been anticipated.
  • Environmental issues:  although pupils expresed concern about the environment and generally think that they can make a contribution to solving issues they showed a general lack of interest in learning about causes of environmental damage such as the greenhouse effect or the ozone layer. Pupils who visit science centres showed more interest in learning about causes of damage than others.
  • The positive impact of Science Centres:  more frequent visits to science centres was associated with greater interest in science, no matter how positively or negatively pupils rate their liking for school science. Engagement with science centres is also significantly correlated with positive attitudes to science & technology.