Where can we find new people to work in the fields of science and technology? For some time now, gloomy research findings have predicted that we could soon run out of teachers and students alike in these fields.
I work as a teacher trainer for prospective class teachers. When I start a new course on science teaching, we always explore these provocative research findings, going back almost a decade. The authors of the study at hand visited fourth-grade science classes over several weeks in order to observe how research and science activities were carried out in the classrooms. They focused on how experiments were carried out, how arguments were presented, how findings were reported both to the teacher and to peers, and how questions were posed and different tools used. The researchers were particularly interested in what kind of student contribution the teacher appreciated. Finally, the pupils were interviewed to find out how they would describe a “science person”.
And here we come to the crux of this study: in a class where pupils were used to working in teams and the working practices reinforced their interdependence, the children associated a science person with qualities that were very different from those listed by their peers in classes where individuals competed over who could first find the solution to a research problem.
Some freely translated student responses to the question “who can be characterised as a science person” are presented below.
Emily: “I think I am a science person. I raise my hand quite often and usually get the answers right. Once, we were doing a kind of science period and I could answer all the questions.”
Jasmine: “In my opinion, Alejandro [is a science person]; he concentrates really well when we work in pairs, and he can explain to a classmate what we’re supposed to do in a task if the other one missed it, for instance. And Amy has really good ideas about what experiments we could do. She always asks a lot of questions.”
In Jasmine’s class, practically all kinds of student groups regarded themselves as science persons of some sort. Children in her class also expected research to be conducted collaboratively.
Research data from about 15 years ago suggests that, on average, both boys and girls typically rejected the natural sciences as a career option, and that even boys regarded technology as only a slightly preferable option (ROSE 2004). Yet, a couple of years ago, it was found that about 37 percent of Finnish 11–18-year-old girls would consider working in the fields of science or technology (Microsoft, 2017). That is actually not a small percentage, is it?
The HOPE project took a different approach to the matter and asked students of the natural sciences why they had chosen this field. The responses from the students who had just started their physics studies showed that they wanted to understand physical phenomena better! Students found that neither development projects, nor visits, nor friends’ encouragement had any impact on their decision.
At this point, the group of students who may go on to study and work in the sciences can be represented by a Venn diagram. Those choosing to actually study the sciences are both interested in science AND belong to the roughly 30% of each age category who regard themselves as science persons. Now that Jasmine and her classmates are attaining full legal age, they can make their choices based on their personal interests. They do not have to be influenced by stereotypical images of lonely researchers working in isolated chambers, or coders locking themselves in a cellar room, as they already have better knowledge of what modern work in science and technology is really like.
We will keep on learning from the model of Jasmine’s class. And – presto! – we can also just be happy that so many people are interested in science and technology – and we can start pondering how to fit all of these new students in the Ylistönrinne campus!
Anna-Leena Kähkönen, University Teacher, LUMA Coordinator
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