Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Why do Students Stop Taking Science?

Last week, at the STAO Congress, we heard from Maureen Callan (of @OntarioEDU) on "Achieving Excellence" through Innovation. While the focus of the discussion was on the many ways we can bring innovation into the science classroom, one thing Maureen mentioned really stood out for me:

After completing their compulsory science courses in high school, the majority of students stop taking science. 

In Ontario, high school students are required to take grade 9 and 10 general science. They may then choose to take a senior (grade 11 or 12) science, or a French as a second language course, a technological education course, a computer studies course or co-operative education.

From the Ontario Ministry of Education's website

That the students don't take as many science courses as possible doesn't come as too much of a surprise - with the reduction of the high school program from five years to four, many students concentrate solely on the courses they need for their chosen college or university programs. They may not have a lot of room to take science courses for fun.

But the question that really stayed with me was, why wouldn't students want to take science?

I LOVE science. To me, all science is incredibly cool, and it is EVERYWHERE. How does a tree get water to the very top leaves? Why is it so windy outside? How does the International Space Station stay in orbit? Why do eggs go opaque when cooked? Why do I need electrolytes after I exercise? How is my computer allowing me to type at this very moment?

I have a hard time believing students aren't curious about things like this, or similar things that affect them every day. And isn't science class where they can learn more about the everyday mysteries of life?

So what are we, as science teachers, doing to drive students away (or equivalently, what are we not doing to keep students interested)? Why are students deciding that science isn't worth their time? While I often hear "when am I going to use this??" in math class, I never hear that in science. Students know science is useful, and yet they still choose other courses.

Are the topics we provide not interesting them? Are they finding it hard (and what is it they're finding hard? Testing? Math? Memorization?)? Are we too rigorous (too much demand placed on details like significant digits or the individual steps of the Krebs Cycle)? Not rigorous enough (not allowing students to go into more depth on a topic that speaks to them)?

I'm curious. Especially as I start a new year as a grade 9 teacher - how can I instill a love of science in my students that will last them through high school (perhaps even seeing them want to take an optional science course in their senior years), and beyond?

13 comments:

  1. It's a complicated issue. However, after 35 years of teaching science (Gr9. Gr10. senior Bio, Chem, Phys), I think the best answer is for teachers to lead by example. Show our students that we love learning in general and science in particular. Show them examples of successful people who use science in their jobs and careers.

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    1. Thanks, Racquel! I would hope that all teachers love learning (no matter the subject) and would transfer that on to their students, but I can see how some might become disenchanted after a while. I'll renew my commitment to bringing passion to the classroom. There's some pretty exciting science stuff going on in the world right now!

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    2. http://bit.ly/1q6wUx1 these recommendations (even though specifically for girls) are based on research and should give you plenty of food for thought.

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    3. Great article! Thanks so much for sharing, Racquel (I'll share it again on the Twitters, too!).

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  2. This is a great blog post topic! I'll admit that in school, I stopped taking Science after Grade 10. I loved the hands-on component of the course, and I loved asking questions and finding out more, but I was struggling with the testing part. I don't know what role testing plays in your Science class, but I wonder if that's part of the issue. What do students say? This might be a great chance for some student voice. I wonder if they would share their concerns and offer up some solutions.

    Aviva

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing! I haven't taught a junior science course in about 5 years, so though I used traditional testing methods back then, so much has changed for me pedagogically that I definitely won't be testing as much this time around. That is, not as much testing in the pencil-to-paper sense. Lots of testing of hypotheses and ideas :) You're right about it being a great chance to talk with the students themselves. I'll let you know what I discover!

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  3. Hi Heather,

    I think the key here is curiousity. The way that Science is taught and the way teachers feel pressure to teach it (based on a specific, content-heavy curriculum) does not leave room for curiousity. We need to find ways to let our students, young and old, play, tinker, explore and be curious. A really easy way to start is to be inspired by Wonderopolis - http://wonderopolis.org/ The questions are awesome, the responses are fun and interactive and they are a good place to start exploring from. My students have enjoyed learning from Wonderopolis, researching further and coming on "Shauna's Science Show" (a classroom talk show about Science) to share what they learned.

    Letting students be curious is, I think, the key to making them lifelong Scientists.

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    1. Thanks, Shauna - I'll be sure to check out Wonderopolis. I love getting students to "find" science in their surroundings, and encourage them to send me cool videos/websites about science that we share in class. I really want to discover what they think is interesting and capitalize on that.

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  4. I can relate to my son and he turned away from science after Gr 11 especially Chemistry. He loved his physics class as the teacher was encouraging more real world experiences and giving the students more responsibility by working together and learning from each other. I think building those collaborative skills with the students and giving them a chance to relate their learning to real examples. I think if the students are presented with a problem and having them think of ways to unpack it to confirm their learning. Not so sure if science is becoming just a coverage than hands on learning. In Grade 6 students love science and discovering many scientific mysteries.

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    1. I only teach high school, and I've often wondered when (in what grade) science goes from being cool to being boring (as well as why and how!). I'm often torn in senior science as to how to spend our time - in Physics class, students need to practice some of the more mundane skills (interpreting graphs, rearranging equations, etc.) so that as systems get more complicated, they can still experience success. But it's definitely not as much fun as running through the halls (kinematics) or testing coefficients of friction of everybody's shoes (forces).

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  5. I don't teach science but it seems to me that the issues that you raise above may not necessarily start in middle school. Often, elementary teachers are not confident teaching science and resort to teaching from the book. As a result, students build a particular schema for what to expect from science class over time. Could this be a contributing factor to the lack of student interest in science in high school? BTW, this is in no way to disparage elementary teachers. However, it is still the reality in many places, and while it may be changing, it is something to consider. What do you think??

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    1. Hi Elisa - thanks for your comment!
      It would be easy to say that students lose enthusiasm/passion for science because of elementary teachers who are hesitant about teaching it, or who stick too closely to the curriculum documents, but having never taught in an elementary school, I can't say for sure (and I know that not all elementary teachers are reluctant to have students do more inquiry in science). But I do agree that by the time students get to high school, they have learned well how to succeed in "traditional" (science) classes: complete the worksheet, learn the material verbatim, and regurgitate it when necessary. Even I get bored of that! That's why I'm trying to shake things up :) Students will find it harder, because it's different, and they're not used to it. I'm hoping they'll get more out of the extra inquiry, and be more likely to explore curiosities in the future!

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  6. Hi Heather,
    Although I don't currently teach science, I have taught elementary science in the past and I know that many teachers do find it hard to move beyond the textbook and sometimes prefer following a lesson plan developed by someone else; being an elementary teacher requires being an expert in so many areas! That's not always realistic. Real inquiry is tough and there are few road maps. In any case, I applaud your foray into making learning in science more relevant to your students. I look forward to reading about your journey.

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