Encouraging Student Interest in Science and Technology Studies

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12 Nov 2008
9789264040892 (PDF) ;9789264040694(print)

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Encouraging Student Interest in Science and Technology Studies examines overall trends in higher education enrolments and the evolution of S&T compared with other disciplines. The results suggest that although absolute numbers of S&T students have been rising as access to higher levels of education expands in OECD economies, the relative share of S&T students among the overall student population has been falling, The report shows that encouraging interest in S&T studies requires action to tackle a host of issues inside and outside the education system, ranging from teacher training and curriculum design to improving the image of S&T careers. Numerous examples of national initiatives are used to complement the analyses to derive a set of practical recommendations.

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  • Introduction
    Knowledge is already one of the main drivers of today’s economic system. In the future those nations, regions, and even local areas that succeed best will be those capable of capturing the benefits of scientific and technical innovations and transforming them into marketable goods and services in the face of global competition. The education system is of course vital to this process, training the scientists, engineers and technicians who constitute the "human capital" of an increasingly fast changing, knowledge intensive economy. But an understanding of science and technology is necessary not only for those whose livelihood depends on it directly, but also for any citizen who wishes to make informed choices about issues ranging from stem cell research to global warming to genetically modified organisms to teaching the theory of evolution in schools. And new issues are bound to emerge in the years to come.
  • Quantitative Analysis: Is There a Real Decline?
    Absolute numbers of science and technology (S&T) students have been rising in line with access to higher education. However, their relative share has been falling in tertiary education and upper secondary levels in several OECD countries. Coupled with unfavourable demographics and a stabilisation of the number of students accessing tertiary education, several OECD countries may see the absolute number of S&T students declining in future years. In other countries, a demographic recovery would mitigate this trend. Aggregate numbers hide important differences among disciplines. For physical sciences and mathematics, the absolute number of students often shows a decline. Life sciences’ share has mostly remained stable due primarily to an increasing number of female students. Engineering benefits from the perception that job prospects are good and shows a stable or positive trend. The number of computer science students has increased dramatically, perhaps reflecting a shift away from physics.
  • Complexity of Contributing/Influencing Factors
    Choice of study is determined by a range of objective and subjective, conscious and unconscious influences ranging from family background to salary expectations to experiences at school. Changes in the general social context, such as accelerating globalisation, also have an influence, e.g. young people may choose broader types of curriculum with a wide range of disciplines to adapt to the job market. Female students are the most obvious resource for increasing science and technology (S&T) enrolments, along with young people from minority groups to some extent. Young female students suffer from stereotypes in relation to the expectations of parents, teachers, and society, despite doing at least as well as boys. Teaching tends to reflect the same stereotypes. Girls tend to undervalue their own performance, and their ability to pursue S&T. They also lack role models. In certain respects, this is also true for students belonging to some minorities.
  • Increasing Student Interest in S&T Studies
    While young people generally have a positive view of science and technology (S&T), the image of S&T as a profession is largely negative. Positive contacts with S&T at an early age can have a long-lasting impact while negative experiences at school, due to uninteresting content or poor teaching, are often very detrimental to future choices. Teachers frequently report a lack of resources and opportunities to reflect upon their way of teaching and to increase their knowledge. In many countries, most primary teachers come from a non-S&T background, and many have not had any specific training in S&T. Interest in S&T is observed to decline most sharply around age 15. This is also when gender differentiation starts to translate into choices, and when key future orientations are set. Curricula are often too rigid to allow pupils who do not choose S&T as their primary subjects to come back to science later.
  • Overall Conclusions and Recommendations
    Over the past 15 years, most OECD economies have experienced a large increase in the number of students in higher education, reaching over 30% in 10 of the 19 countries studied. The absolute number of students in S&T fields shows an overall increase too, but the proportion of S&T students has steadily decreased during the same period. Some disciplines do better than others. Engineering students account for 40% to 60% of S&T students in most countries, especially at the new tertiary entrant and graduate levels, and are characterised by a stable or positive enrolment trend over the past 10 years. The situation for physical sciences and mathematics is the opposite, where a decline is often seen in the absolute number of students, and the proportion of students in such fields was actually halved between 1995 and 2003. On the other hand, the proportion of students in the life sciences has remained mostly stable, due primarily to an increasing number of female students. The number of computer science students has increased dramatically, perhaps as a consequence of shifts in student choice within the overall domain of S&T.
  • Annex A
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