3 reasons why students are switching off science

There is a decline in student interest in science. Just type “students decline science” and hundreds of articles will come up of students not choosing to study science in post-compulsory schooling in countries like Australia, USA and the UK. At a time where technology is rapidly increasing and the world is facing issues like climate change, rapid rates of extinction, water shortage and food shortage, it is worrying to see students switching off science.

What I find more concerning is my observations that kids love watching science YouTube channels at home in their own time, but they are not enjoying school science. Something is wrong. While the reasons below for why students are switching off science are not validated by any research data, they are inklings that I have based on observations of students and numerous student surveys completed at my school on their engagement in science.

Reason #1 – Science teachers rely too much on whiz-bang experiments to make science interesting

I think every science teacher is guilty of this. I certainly am. We often use showy experiments for entertainment to keep students engaged. Instead of promoting our subject as intrinsically interesting, we use colourful and bubbly experiments to “trick” students into liking science. How many times do we have students walk into a science lab and ask “are we doing an experiment today” and groan when the answer is no. Of course experiments have a place in science, but science isn’t about setting things on fire or making things explode. Science is a way of thinking and aligns with humans’ natural curiosity of understanding of the world around us. I think we have pushed science as a subject of fire and explosions for so long that this is what students expect and they are disappointed when a unit of work or a series of lessons do not have experiments.

Reason #2 – Science lessons often do not allow all students to experience some success

In NSW, Australia, Year 8 students do a state-wide test called Essential Secondary Science Assessment (ESSA). At the end of ESSA, students are asked to rank their favourite subjects. Since 2006, year after year the results show students like PDHPE and Visual Art the most. My gut feeling is that these subjects allow ALL students to experience some success. In Visual Art, it doesn’t matter if you are a not-so-good painter or if you are as brilliant as Picasso, every single student is able to produce an artwork, which is showcased. Same with PDHPE, it doesn’t matter how bad or good you are at sport, every single student have been part of a team that has won a game and experienced the excitement of success. Not so in science. In many science lessons, students don’t produce anything that can be showcased. Only a handful of student who are “good” at science feel success. A lot of students think they are “bad” at science. This is one of the reasons why I’m a fan of project based learning (PBL). PBL enables students to create a product that shows their learning and they showcase that product to an authentic audience. This give students a sense of success.

Reason #3 – Students don’t know the careers that science can lead to

Not many students see scientists in their everyday lives. They see bankers, accountants, lawyers but they rarely see scientists or associate jobs with science. In the surveys at my school, the most common reason given for not wanting to study science in post-compulsory schooling is that they don’t need science for their job or career. While we as science teachers know that many jobs and careers require some understanding of science, do our students know? Do we link our students to current practicing scientists so they can what they learn in school is actually used in people’s jobs in real life?

At my school we have been pushing for connections with university pHd students and current scientists. Through the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), our students have been lucky enough to go to the university regularly and hear about current research conducted pHd students and meet scientists face-to-face and know that science can lead to a fulfilling career. We have utlised the scientists in schools program to have a scientist come to talk to our students about what she does in her everyday job and why finds her job fun and rewarding. We also ask parents to come to school and speak to our students. This year, we had a parent who works in the communications industry speak to our students about his job, how it requires an understanding of energy transmission and waves and how much he loves his job.

A marine biologist specialising in sharks speak to Year 8s about this job and why he loves being a scientist.

A marine biologist specialising in sharks speak to Year 8s about this job and why he loves being a scientist.

And has all this gotten results? Many of our year 10 students apply to attend UTS summer school where they can choose from film, design, science, IT and health over the Christmas holidays. In previous years I have struggled to get any students to apply for the science summer school. Everyone wanted to film and design. After a couple of years of connecting students with university science students and real scientists, we have 12 students apply for science summer school this year.

As we are entering the new syllabus for the Australian Curriculum in NSW, it is time that science teachers re-think HOW we teach science and how can we work with the scientific community to increase student engagement in science.


5 thoughts on “3 reasons why students are switching off science

  1. You have some vary good points. Really making me think. I will be entering a SA public school for the first time as a qualified high school science teacher next year and I must remember to take this message with me.

    You mentioned curiosity, there is a lack of chance for curiosity in many science lesson, which is a big problem as science stems from curiosity (as you said). Many science ‘experiments’ and tasks are so guided that the students don’t need to be curious they just need the answer.

    Thank you I love reading your blog 😀


    • Thanks Alex. I agree that curiosity if vital, which is why I like the hook activities in PBL because it draws students into the content by establishing a need to know and want to know. Students need to be given opportunities to do their own experiments. In NSW this is officially required only one every 2 years. Students should be running their own experiments and personalising their learning much more than that.

  2. I wonder if some of these points could be applied to English too? I wonder if so much time is spent on making it fun, that core skills are being ignored. I wonder if this eventually leads to student despondency when it comes time to produce ‘real’ work, like high stakes tasks. I know Macquarie Special Ed Centre puts a premium on core skills, but they’re delivered in 10 minute blocks so that students don’t lose focus. I wonder if a kind of regimented mix would work. In autism-speak (ABA) they call it ‘first this, then that’ and the ‘rewards’ (fun stuff) comes soon after the hard graft. It’s a language anyone can understand and builds those intrinsic reward feelings quickly. Anyway, you’ve given me lots to think about. Thanks again Alice.

  3. Great post, Alice. In primary school, the same applies, but perhaps to a lesser extent. I also wonder if this applies to subjects like mathematics, where even in Year 2, which I teach, students come in at the beginning of the year either loving it, or feeling alienated from the subject. I love your idea of providing students the opportunity to feel successful in their work and using PBL so that students can drive and showcase their own learning. You’ve inspired me to consider how I might do this with some of the less popular primary KLAs.

  4. Pingback: Learning with real scientists | Alice Leung

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