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Science moved to the back burner as pupils no longer feel the spark

Cutbacks and low uptake lead to a drop in physics and chemistry

Published 21/04/2010 | 05:00

Students Richard McMickan and Ailish Kane taking part in a science experiment at Wilson's Hospital School
Students Richard McMickan and Ailish Kane taking part in a science experiment at Wilson's Hospital School

Science subjects are being abandoned at Leaving Cert in many Irish schools as cutbacks take effect and students show little interest in studying Physics and Chemistry.

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A recent survey by the ASTI shows how the government faces an uphill battle as it tries to boost the "knowledge economy''.

Its recent pronouncements about improving the scientific literacy of second-level pupils may prove to be as hollow as a Liebig condenser.

In an ideal world the education authorities would love to see school students gazing lovingly into test tubes and then going on to become high-powered researchers making pioneering discoveries in white coats.

The reality on the ground is very different. One in every three secondary schools is in the process of dropping a science subject at Leaving Cert level.

The aspiring nuclear physicist might find it extremely difficult to make progress through the Irish education system.

Already, 14pc of schools have dropped a science subject in the current academic year.

A further 20pc say they will be forced to do the same before next September.

Physics is the biggest casualty, followed by chemistry, according to the survey carried out Millward Brown Lansdowne for the ASTI.

In cases where the subjects are not dropped, a significant number of schools (9pc) are merging their fifth- and sixth- year science classes.

The immediate cause of the scrapping of science subjects in a significant minority of schools is the increase in the pupil-teacher ratios as a result of government cutbacks. There has also been a loss of government grants for Physics and Chemistry.

Peter Keaney, a science teacher at Wilson's Hospital School in Westmeath, says: "A lot of schools have to make a difficult choice, with falling numbers of teachers. If they have 20 or 30 students who want to do Business at Leaving Cert, and five who want to do Physics, Business will win out and they might not offer Physics at all.''

The cutbacks may be discouraging schools from offering the subject, but science teachers face a more fundamental problem: the vast majority of pupils do not want to study the subjects at Leaving Cert.

According to the survey, the primary barrier to the study of Physics and Chemistry at Leaving Cert is the perception that they are hard.

A secondary cause for low take-up, according to teachers, is the view that science is too theoretical and removed from everyday life.

Teachers blame the distortions of the points system for the lack of enthusiasm for the subjects.

"Students believe they are harder and that it will be harder to get points in the Leaving Cert,'' says Peter Keaney.

"You can't blame them for that. They are taking the attitude that they can pick up more points by studying something like Business.''

Students are simply playing the points system to their advantage by avoiding the most difficult subjects.

"There is no incentive to study Chemistry and Physics,'' says Moira Leydon, ASTI Education Officer.

"Students realise that they can maximise their points by studying Home Economics, which is a doddle.''

Moira Leydon says the choice of subjects, merely as a way of maximising points, throws into question our entire Leaving Cert system.

However, she points out that waning interest in physical sciences among second-level students is not just an Irish problem. Students are dropping the subjects across the Western world.

The ROSE study of science education in Ireland published in 2007 found that the reasons why students are turning away from science are complicated -- and are not all linked to the school syllabus and teaching methods.

The study suggested that the benefits of modern science are taken for granted in the West, while in less industrialised countries technological developments are seen as more immediate and novel.

The ROSE study, carried out by Dr Philip Matthews of Trinity College, said many Irish students did not perceive the links between the physical sciences and humankind -- except in a negative light through phenomena such as global warming, pollution and warfare.

"The science-based industries have done a very poor job at explaining themselves to Irish society,'' said Dr Matthews.

"There is a clear need for (them) to be more proactive in raising their profile and the profile of science as it connects to humans.''

According to Dr Matthews' analysis, the problem is not so much that there are too few students sitting Physics and Chemistry -- the problem is quality.

The physical sciences are not attracting the brightest students at the Leaving Cert, and the most able students are not going on to study the subjects at third level.

Although the increased emphasis on experiments at the Junior Cert has been widely welcomed it has placed an extra burden on teachers, the ASTI survey found.

Because the vast majority of schools do not have lab technicians, teachers spend a considerable time on lab preparation and tidying up.

Ninety-five per cent of teachers said the availability of a lab technician (to assist with preparation and clean-up work) would help to improve the teaching of science.

"A lot of science teachers are run ragged and it would be easier for them to choose Maths as a subject,'' says Michael Moriarty, a science teacher at Moate Community School.

"At the height of the boom, the government had the resources to employ lab technicians in schools, but they decided against it. It was a huge mistake.

"Fortunately in my school we have a lab technician for half a day each week and it is a huge help.''

Irish Independent

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