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Science & Schools

Science and Schools: Scotland’s Learning Taboo

Scotland has a rich scientific past that any large country would be proud of. From the humble rain Mac to the modern steam engine and even life-saving penicillin, Scots inventors have played a large part in shaping the modern world.

Pioneers like Alexander Graham Bell, John Logie Baird and Lord Kelvin himself all helped to forge our world-wide reputation for exceeding expectations. Science appeared to be in Scottish blood.

Today however, science in Scotland seems to have taken a bit of a back seat. Despite skills shortages in many science-based industries such as engineering and pharmacology, we are now struggling to produce a workforce who can fill the gaps.

Our rich heritage it seems is firmly in the past. When it comes to science and technology we no longer punch above our weight.

Perhaps the best way to improve our performance in these industries is to look at our schools. Science in Scottish schools has been in trouble for quite a long time.

Back in 2008 a survey of more than 60 countries and regions found that Scottish pupils performed below the global average. According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) Scotland lagged behind small countries like Slovenia and Armenia. The real high achievers were pupils in countries like Japan and China, who consistently topped the tables in nearly every science-based subject. 1

The findings were backed up when Scotland held its first ever School Science Summit a year later. Attended by key players in education, business and research, it looked at how the new Curriculum for Excellence could improve science learning and teaching in Scotland.

Focusing on teaching, it introduced new programmes to help boost Scotland’s scientific potential. The courses for teachers aimed to boost enthusiasm for science and to try out innovative teaching ideas.

At the same time, the Scottish Government also launched an advertising campaign showing young people just how rewarding science could be as well as the potential career options available.

Since then there have been signs of improvement, with more schools encouraging youngsters to look at potential careers in science, technology and engineering. According to the latest HMIE report published in July, ‘Science: A portrait of current practices’, many Scottish pupils are benefiting from an ‘encouraging learning environment which promotes positive attitudes to science. 2

But interestingly the report also highlights there are still many areas of weakness which still need to be tackled.

The HMIE report states: “The challenge ahead is to improve learning and teaching approaches through promoting thinking and deeper understanding of scientific ideas.

“Children and young people need to be more active in their learning with greater independence, responsibility and awareness of themselves as learners and what they need to do to improve. They need to develop a wider range of practical investigation and inquiry skills, as well as literacy, numeracy and ICT skills, in relevant science contexts.” 3

The general assumption in Scottish society that boys perform better than girls in science and technology is also well out-of-date.

In 2006 the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concluded the so-called gender gap didn’t really exist. For while boys consistently outperformed girls in science in the UK – more so than any other develop country – girls outperformed boys elsewhere.

By analysing the results from 57 countries, the organisation found there were no significant differences between boys and girls. In fact, in some countries like Turkey and Greece girls were significantly ahead of boys in their science studies. 4

By changing our attitudes and encouraging more girls to take up physics, biology or chemistry, we could increase the number of people who are employed in science and technology-based careers in the future.

Perhaps a harder task is tackling the view that science, technology and engineering are difficult subjects to master. Traditionally seen as vast and complex topics, many students can be inadvertently put off pursuing science-based careers simply because they don’t think they are clever enough.

The current emphasis on facts, figures and exam results has not helped change people’s attitudes. Students can sometimes feel that science is more about remembering what is important rather than focusing on problem-solving and experimentation. If children were a little more aware of just how much science affects our daily lives, they might be more inclined to study it.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Over the last ten years alone there has been a surge in the number of school science clubs, local festivals and international events taking place throughout Scotland.

More kids are now happy to take part in science-based activities outwith school hours. Places like the Glasgow Science Centre and Our Dynamic Earth in city centre Edinburgh are helping to make science fun. In fact, the teaching and learning of science & technology is a core part of the Glasgow Science Centre’s mission.

For over 20 years the Edinburgh International Science Festival has also been encouraging kids of all ages to get science curious. When the first event took place back in 1989 it was a world first and today it is still one of the largest events of its kind in Europe.

Every year hundreds of events take place over a two week period – giving audiences the chance to get involved and excited about the world of science.

Their school touring programme, Generation Science, has been a huge hit in classrooms up and down the country. Delivering entertaining performances, hands-on activities and lots of interactive learning it makes learning science fun.

So far, their innovative approach has helped more than a million Scottish pupils understand the thrill and importance of science & technology just that little bit more.

By taking stock of the growing skills shortages in the science & engineering industries, we should be able to combat any future gaps in Scottish employment.

Through comprehensive teaching, interactive experiences and hands-on problem solving we can encourage a healthy curiosity in science, engineering and technology.

Science doesn’t have to be boring. On the contrary, it is a subject which can dramatically change how we go about our daily lives and the way we view the world.


1. Timss report statistics…

2. HMIe report…

3. HMIe report…

4. OECD findings…

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