Science and mathematics are not cool subjects, say students. Consequently, if these subjects are compulsory, students opt for an easier stream in secondary school and are less likely to transition to university science programs. In addition, female students are under-represented in areas such as mathematics, physics and astronomy. Around the world, the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are in grave trouble in secondary and tertiary institutions. But worse, STEM university graduates may not work in a field of their expertise, leaving STEM agencies and organizations to hire from a shrinking pool.
In 1995, 14 percent of Year 12 secondary school mathematics students studied advanced mathematics, while 37 percent studied elementary mathematics, according to the Australian Mathematical Science Institute. Fifteen years later, in 2010, 10 percent were studying advanced mathematics and 50 percent took the easier option of elementary mathematics.
The Australian Mathematical Science Institute revealed that basic mathematics was growing in popularity among secondary students to the detriment of intermediate or advanced studies. This has resulted in fewer universities offering higher mathematics courses, and subsequently there are reduced graduates in mathematics.
There have also been reduced intakes in teacher training colleges and university teacher education departments in mathematics programs, which have resulted in many low-income or remote secondary schools without higher level mathematics teachers, which further resulted in fewer science courses or the elimination of specific topics from courses. For some mathematics courses, this is producing a continuous cycle of low supply, low demand, and low supply.
But is it actually a dire problem? The first question is one of supply. Are universities producing enough quality scientists, technology experts, engineers, and mathematicians? Harold Salzman of Rutgers University and his research colleague, B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University in Washington D.C., revealed in a 2009 study that, contrary to widespread perception, the United States continued to produce science and engineering graduates. However, fewer than half actually accepted jobs in their field of expertise. They are moving into sales, marketing, and health care jobs.
The second question is one of demand. Is there a continuing demand for STEM graduates? An October 2011 report from the Georgetown University’s Centre on Education and the Workforce confirmed the high demand for science graduates, and that STEM graduates were paid a greater starting salary than non-science graduates.
The Australian Mathematical Science Institute said the demand for doctorate graduates in mathematics and statistics will rise by 55 percent by 2020 (on 2008 levels).
In the United Kingdom, the Department for Engineering and Science report, The Supply and Demand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematical Skills in the UK Economy (Research Report RR775, 2004) projected the stock of STEM graduates to rise by 62 percent from 2004 to 2014 with the highest growth in subjects allied to medicine at 113 percent, biological science at 77 percent, mathematical science at 77 percent, computing at 77 percent, engineering at 36 percent, and physical science at 32 percent.
Fields of particular growth are predicted to be agricultural science (food production, disease prevention, biodiversity, and arid-lands research), biotechnology (vaccinations and pathogen science, medicine, genetics, cell biology, pharmagenomics, embryology, bio-robotics, and anti-ageing research), energy (hydrocarbon, mining, metallurgical, and renewable energy sectors), computing (such as video games, IT security, robotics, nanotechnologies, and space technology), engineering (hybrid-electric automotive technologies), geology (mining and hydro-seismology), and environmental science (water, land use, marine science, meteorology, early warning systems, air pollution, and zoology).
So why aren’t graduates undertaking science careers? The reason is because it’s just not cool — not at secondary school, nor at university, nor in the workforce. Georgetown University’s CEW reported that American science graduates viewed traditional science careers as “too socially isolating.” In addition, a liberal-arts or business education was often regarded as more flexible in a fast-changing job market.
How can governments make science cool?
The challenge, says Professor Ian Chubb, head of Australia’s Office of the Chief Scientist, is to make STEM subjects more attractive for students, particularly females — without dumbing down the content.
Chubb, in his Health of Australian Science report (May 2012), indicated that, at research level, Australia has a relatively high scholarly output in science, producing more than 3 percent of world scientific publications yet accounting for only about 0.3 percent of the world’s population.
Australian-published scholarly outputs, including fields other than science, grew at a rate of about 5 percent per year between 1999 and 2008.
This was considerably higher than the global growth rate of 2.6 percent. But why isn’t this scholarly output translating into public knowledge, interest, and participation in science?
Chubb promotes a two-pronged approach to the dilemma: 1. science education: enhancing the quality and engagement of science teaching in schools and universities; and 2. science workforce: the infusion of science communication into mainstream consciousness to promote the advantages of scientific work.
Specifically, Chubb calls for creative and inspirational teachers and lecturers, as well as an increase in female academics, for positive role modeling, and to set science in a modern context. Instead of restructuring and changing the curriculum, he advocates training teachers to create ways to make mathematics and science more relevant to students’ lives.
Communicating about science in a more mainstream manner is also critical to imparting the value of scientific innovation. Chubb is a fan of social media to bring science into the mainstream and to change people’s perception of science careers and scientists. Social media can also bring immediacy to the rigor, analysis, observation and practical components of science.
In practical terms, the recent findings on student attitudes to STEM subjects, their perception of scientific work, and the flow of STEM graduates to their field of expertise, may be improved by positively changing the way governments, scientists, and educators communicate science on a day-to-day level.
Contextual, situational, relevant science education is more likely to establish links between theory and practical application. This can be demonstrated through real-world applications, including science visits and explorations in the local environment, at all levels of education.
Even university students should avoid being cloistered in study rooms, and be exposed to real world, real environment situations. Furthermore, science educators advocate the use of spring-boarding student queries, interests, and motivation into extra-curriculum themes that capture their imagination and innovation.
Therefore, enabling students to expand core curricula requirements to include optional themes, projects, competitions, and activities chosen by individual students, groups, or school clusters lead to increased student (and teacher) motivation and participation.
In addition, integrating and cross-fertilizing science with non-science subjects and day-to-day activities (e.g. the science of chocolate, sport science, technical drawings, artistic design, and clothing design) can powerfully place STEM subjects firmly into practical applications.
“Scientists in residence” programs, in which local scientists work periodically in school and university settings, can inspire students and provide two-way communication opportunities.
In addition, international collaborations between schools of different regions or countries through a range of technologies demonstrate and reinforce collaboration in the scientific workplace — as a way to build a cadre of experts, exchange ideas, network, cooperate, economize, and create culturally diverse outcomes of excellence.
These approaches can provide a more realistic concept of the work scientists perform from a local to a global perspective.