Are European students too lazy? Are they unwilling to tackle complicated Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) subjects? Despite eye-watering unemployment rates, many employers are struggling to recruit enough technically-skilled workers. At the same time, large numbers of people in these fields are coming up for retirement, with around 7 million job openings forecast until 2025.
Despite the greater job prospects, the number of students studying science subjects is not increasing at the European level. This seems strange, given how difficult it is to find a job in Europe right now. Is the problem with how science is taught in the classroom? Would a more creative approach to teaching convince students that STEM subjects can be engaging, interesting, and accessible for non-geniuses?
This week the European Schoolnet and Scientix project of the European Commission jointly organize a series of live events on STEM education and e-skills in Barcelona, bringing experts politicians and other stakeholders together to discuss these questions and latest trends in education and technology (click here for the programme).
We had a comment sent in from Jan arguing that the problem was too many students find technical subjects complicated and boring. What’s the best way to convince them that science can be engaging and worthwhile?
To get a response, we took Jan’s comment to Vitor Duarte Teodoro, a former Assistant Professor at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa in Portugal. He said the first step was to admit that science, at a professional level, was complicated and boring. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be taught in an engaging way:
The first thing I would like to say is that it is complicated. It’s like sports, if you are a sports professional, you need to work hard. And I can assure you that most of the time it is boring. Let’s imagine a swimmer; they can train 6 hours per day, 7 hours per week, and I cannot believe that they don’t find such training boring.
The problem is not that science is boring or complicated. The problem is that if you are a student learning it, you need to involve yourself in learning, and not just be a passive person in the classroom. What happens most of the time in science classrooms is that students are too passive, and are not involved in the process of learning…
The first thing they must know is that if you are a professional – in sports, music, or science – at a certain level it is always really complicated and boring because there is too much routine. That’s the way life is and you can’t change that! But that doesn’t mean that if you’re in a classroom you can’t be involved, discussing, observing, confronting ideas. And that’s the problem in science teaching. Most of the time, students don’t talk, don’t discuss, and don’t argue.
For another perspective, we spoke to Sam Marsh, a teaching fellow at the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Sheffield. What would he say to Jan:
I think it’s about encouraging confidence. What I would say to students who were looking at maths and science and are scared of what they see is that maths and science always looks hard before you learn it. And I remember this as a student myself, looking at work that I didn’t know and hadn’t learnt yet and thinking: ‘No chance, I can’t understand this’.
And this carried on throughout my undergraduate degree, into post-graduate level, and even into research level. Half of my colleagues, I look at their work and think: ‘I can’t do that’ – but then similarly, they look at my work and are just as scared.
So, my advice to people would be: don’t be scared. You’ll only know whether you can do it by trying. It’s always going to look hard, and you might find that you’re better at it than you think.
What’s the best way to teach science? How can we convince students that technical subjects aren’t too complicated (or boring)? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!