Around this time each year Australian students are thinking about the subjects they will choose for their final two years of school. Sadly, around half are likely to decide that they don’t want to continue with science. I find this astonishing and a huge concern. I’ve had several careers in varied fields and science is the most worthwhile thing I’ve studied. I needed to look more closely at why students reject science and what can be done about it.
Concerns for falling enrolments in science
The downward trend in science enrolments in secondary schools in Australia has been a concern for decades. The Office of the Chief Scientist reminds us that science is critical to Australia’s future and is where jobs growth will be. Education research into why the decline has happened has been extensive and thrown up a list of possible reasons.
However we still really don’t know why so many students reject science in their senior years and, significantly, how we might go about reversing it.
I decided to look at the problem from a new perspective, from the perspective of how the subject is marketed to students. I wondered if the problem could involve how science is valued compared to other subjects that students can ‘buy’.
How I researched the marketing of science
My research looked at how adolescents choose subjects and how science fits into the subject selection marketplace for Year 10. I conducted focus groups with 50 students from five secondary schools and studied the environment within which students chose their subjects (what they were told and given, and by whom). After finding out what students thought, I interviewed 15 adults who assisted students to make their subject choices to see how this compared. Finally, I conducted a survey of 379 students who had recently chosen their subjects. Read the paper on my website here.
The survey was not typical; it contained a best-worst scaling (BWS) component that was completed by 333 students. Best-worst scaling is special because it allows the factors that students consider in choosing their subjects to be ranked by comparing the factors against one another. It means that we can know which factors for choice are more or less important to students when they choose subjects, and how this affects science.
Although best-worst scaling has been used to look at teachers’ decisions and in many other fields, this is the first time it has been used to look at student choices. It means we can explore what is in the forefront of students’ minds when they come to choosing or rejecting the subject of science as a senior secondary school subject.
What I discovered about how students choose subjects
In focus groups (part of the methods I used in my research), students described choosing their final year subjects in two stages. The first stage was a choice involving subjects they “love” or “hate” (they used these words) and then in the second stage students went about valuing subjects in terms of how useful it would be for a career or further study and how much effort they would need to put in to get good marks. Unfortunately, this is where things go wrong for science.
The figure below shows 21 factors that I found students considered when choosing their subjects. The maximum score is 5 when a student always chose that factor as the most important and -5 if they always chose it as least important.
You can see that interest expectation was the number one ranking factor. The next two most important factors are the need for career (as in the need for this subject in a future study or career) and then the mark expectation. Therein lies the problem.
Students chose subjects they thought would be interesting, useful for their careers and would give them high marks. Obviously they expect science will not deliver in these areas as much as other subjects available to them might do.
The two problems
So there are two main problems. First, students saw science less interesting and more difficult compared to other subjects, and this led them to believe they would be less likely to get high marks in science assessments. (This belief was also common with the adults I interviewed). Students didn’t say they wanted to avoid work, rather they believed if they worked hard it had to result in higher marks.
Second, students saw science as a subject that is only useful if you wanted to do a ‘scientific’ job, such as becoming a doctor or an engineer.
This means science can be seen as ‘expensive’ in terms of effort, with limited benefits for use in a future career or study. To an adolescent this double effect can make science look like ‘bad value’, so they choose something else.
Science is useful in a wide range of careers and it supports understanding a complicated 21st century world. Unfortunately this is not clear to adolescents.
It struck me that their view of the usefulness of science is much more narrow than the view of students who did science at school decades ago. (The view probably of most of us who are trying to fix the problem today.)
When I was at school in the late 70s science enrolments where high. Science was seen as a staple subject alongside maths and English. Even those who did not particularly like science would do science at school because it was considered necessary for a rounded education. This is sadly no longer the case.
What can be done
It is important that more adults know how students perceive science so they can help change their narrow view. My research will help.
I believe, as educators we need to think more about how we present science and how we talk about it in the classroom. But making science more interesting and enjoyable in classrooms is just part of it.
Year 9 and 10 students need to be shown the true value of science in their lives and careers. This information should come from someone students will listen to. If you look again at the figure, you will see that advice from teachers and parents is quite far down the list and advice from peers is even further.
Students today tend to make their own subject decisions. So perhaps we could ask past students who used their science outside traditional science roles to share their stories with our present students. Also we could look to science graduates who found science useful in other careers to spread the word.
Especially schools need to think about how they write and present subject selection information, to help students see the big picture. It’s all about the message. People who help students choose their high school subjects need to have a consistent message: “Science is VERY useful for your career and future study, here’s how.”
Another message could be: “Consider the risks of NOT doing science in your senior secondary school education in the 21st century”.
We also need to help students understand they can get good marks in science and those good marks could help them gain entry to university, an apprenticeship or entry to their preferred vocational education course.
All I am asking of educators is: in your classrooms and especially at subject selection time, please be aware of how students choose their subjects. And most of all, to everyone involved in the process of choosing subjects: please give science a chance.
Dr Tracey-Ann Palmer is a Lecturer and Researcher in the School of Education in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. She loves science but like many graduates left biochemistry a few years after completing her degree doing an MBA and working in the finance sector doing product management and marketing. Her PhD on science subject choice was completed in 2015. She loves to sing, dance and paint and is learning to play the ukulele. Here is her website. Contact Tracey-Ann on Tracey-Ann.Palmer@UTS.edu.au or through Twitter @TAPalmerScience