Education systems don't produce enough women scientists. Photo by Intel Free Press, Creative Commons licence.

Education systems don't produce enough women scientists. Photo by Intel Free Press, Creative Commons licence.

Education systems don't produce enough women scientists. Photo by Intel Free Press, Creative Commons licence.

Recent research concludes that not enough young people are choosing to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and pursue STEM careers, and that the profile of those who do is too narrow to sustain Europe’s economic competitiveness. The British Council’s Dr Tim Slingsby believes that policy adjustments may help turn the problem around.

There are concerns in Europe that education systems are outdated and do not reflect the fact that huge swathes of knowledge are now immediately available to a generation of students fluent with information technology. Two sets of questions arise:

1. Should teachers still be regarded as the source of knowledge in a classroom? Would it not be better to think of teachers rather as guides through an overwhelming, often unverified and ever-changing collection of information, who teach pupils the research skills you actually need as a scientist?

2. The way science is taught usually has very little to do with the way science is done; science is beautiful and fun, requiring curiosity, imagination and independent thinking. Is our perception of how we examine those qualities therefore reductive, if exams mostly demand a reeling off of historical facts? Should exams not be viewed as just a part of the education process, serving only as checks that the process is working?

Current education policy and concerns about the economy

Policy-makers from around the world continue to note that STEM industries are vital for economic growth yet continue to rely on education systems that discourage young people, and particularly girls (Eurydice, ASPIRES and the ROSE project), from aspiring to science careers. European countries do support many individual programmes that aim to improve science education, but overall and connected strategies are very rare, and impact has been notably low.

This is of particular concern when noting that the EU as a whole is struggling to reach its own 2020 target of at most 15% low achievers (as measured by PISA) in science, maths and reading. The European Commission Directorate General for Education and Culture has noted the slow pace of improvement and stated the need for significant policy reform, particularly in the area of mathematics.

So, it is clear that there are several educational challenges linked to both students’ perception of science on the one hand and current science education on the other.

A way out: a new pan-European programme

We launched a programme – with European support – to start tackling these issues in science education. It’s called MARCH and will, for the first time, examine today’s formal enrichment programmes (programmes to motivate students to participate in science subjects), alongside the large and diverse range of informal science learning initiatives, which are recognised both for their own inherent value and their alignment with increased interest in formal science education (see The Wellcome Trust’s review).

In addition, MARCH will make inclusion (gender and disability) one of its most important criteria in all activities.

There is a reason for this programme to be international: Different countries have different strengths and methods, many of them highly effective in different fields, but only regionally employed or focused. The UK, for example, has notable strengths in informal enrichment activities, but should share with and learn from other countries. An international approach will make it easier and quicker to develop the right teaching methods, and an appropriate network committed to improving education policies and practices is paramount to that.

MARCH has already gathered a diverse group of European partners with significant experience in different aspects of science education (training, new resources, promotional events/festivals, policy development). Those behind the project are aware of the challenges they face. The status of STEM education varies widely in different European countries and, whilst MARCH will create a virtual community to strengthen e-learning, mentoring and international collaboration, the network recognises that embedding this in STEM teachers’ day-to-day practice will be difficult.

MARCH can only represent the first steps towards the changes required for STEM education systems to match the demand for economic growth. It will be important for MARCH to stand out from a relatively saturated offer of STEM education initiatives and for the project consortium to work alongside professional bodies and policy-makers to demonstrate that MARCH is offering a truly fresh perspective to a widespread concern.

Read more: How can young scientists sustain their careers?

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Photo by Intel Free Press on Flickr under Creative Commons licence.