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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 June, 2005, 23:37 GMT 00:37 UK
Science dull and hard, pupils say
Scientists were seen by most pupils as clever
Some 51% of teenagers think science lessons are boring, confusing or difficult, a survey suggests.

Figures from the OCR exam board, which interviewed 950 children aged 13 to 16 in England, showed 7% thought people working in the area were "cool".

The number of pupils choosing to study physics and chemistry at school and university level is falling.

According to the survey, some children thought singer Madonna and explorer Christopher Columbus were scientists.

Giving up

When asked to name a famous scientist, 39% suggested Isaac Newton and 29% Albert Einstein.

Also on the list were Marie Curie, Charles Darwin and Alexander Fleming.

The survey reveals that 79% of pupils associated scientists with being clever.

The children were asked if they would study science subjects if they were not compulsory.

Some 45% said they would take biology, 32% chemistry, 29% physics and 19% combined science.

But 16% would not choose any of them.

Clara Kenyon, director of general assessment at OCR, said: "The results go to show the growing apathy in today's students about science and their ignorance of modern day achievements.

"It is startling that no students named those responsible for recent scientific advances, for example, Ian Wilmut who cloned Dolly the sheep or Professor Colin Pillinger who headed the Beagle 2 space probe to Mars project."

OCR is launching a different type of science GCSE from next year, which it says will encourage more involvement with modern topics such as cloning or mobile phone technology.

Your comments

Science IS easy. The problem is pupils are not arriving with the appropriate skills (eg. decent level of maths [particularly mental arithmetic and equation skills] and logical analysis skills) and the subject is dull and watered down with lots of irrelevant side issues (nothing to get them excited to want to learn WHY something works). To be a scientist you have to be able to comprehend and want to comprehend.
David, UK

Science in schools is now boring because the kids are no longer allowed to do or see anything interesting. The health and safety brigade have stopped every interesting experiment or demonstration being carried out and the kids have to learn everything from a book. Plus as Philip Copeland points out you can earn more on the checkout in Tesco than you can working in a lab. Plus in Tesco you don't spend your life working on short term contracts.
Paul, Scotland

To echo many of the comments, a pay commensurate with the time and effort put in to become an experienced scientist would make science a lot more interesting, at least to researchers like me.
Bernard, Parma, Italy

Why bother to study difficult science subjects such as chemistry, physics etc in order to become a scientist when you can study easier business/management degrees and become a scientist's boss on a much higher wage?
Disgruntled Scientist, Herts, England

Are the happiest societies in the world the ones that are most scientifically advanced? I doubt it... The things that bring joy to me personally are the subtleties of a great novel, the intricacies of a masterful musical composition, or the imagination behind an inspired work of art. It's appreciation of these things that I would rather see focused on in our schools - I applaud the 16% of our kids that would choose not to do any science!
Stevan Anastasoff, Birmingham, UK

Why suddenly everything has to be fun? Kids are superficial and often can't recognise what's really good to know until they're, most of the time, too old to learn that again. I wish my parents insisted more on me learning some things when I was a kid. Sometimes kids first have to learn something, later they'll learn to love it. Of course, without good teachers who also love and understand what they teach this can't be done.
Igor, Dublin, Ireland

I feel one problem is the inability of some science teachers to properly communicate what they are teaching since they don't understand it properly themselves. Biologists are often made to teach physics and science GCSE teachers have often only studied up to A-level standards, for instance. If you don't understand something fully yourself then how can you expect to teach and inspire children about it?
Paul, Edinburgh, UK

Science is not difficult or boring. The curriculum and way it is taught is bad. My son was recently 'taught' about the internal combustion engine using nothing more than a blackboard - not a model, not an engine, not anything useful in sight. He has also just been taught about CFC's and global warming!
Dave, England

I gave maths and physics coaching (in Australia) to final year school students for 5 years, while I was studying engineering. After I'd finished that job, I asked my boss what the students at the coaching college went on to study later at University. He told me that 95% of the (scores of) students that I had taught went on to study either medicine or law and that they only studied maths/science at school because it was easy to rote-learn and get high marks. This was in the 1980s. This situation isn't likely to change while the brightest students avoid becoming school teachers (for obvious reasons).
Graham Pulford, Farnborough, UK

The curriculum needs to be modernised to include things that are of relevance for the younger generation
Jamie Muirhead, Poole, UK
I sat my GCSEs last year and the sciences were always the most mind numbing. The science lessons themselves were generally uninspired and, as far as I was concerned, wholly irrelevant to anything that would occur in 'real life'. I think that the curriculum needs to be modernised to include things that are of relevance for the younger generation, otherwise the popularity of the sciences will continue to dwindle.
Jamie Muirhead, Poole, UK

Surely this is what the top-up fees are made for? Simply reduce the fees for these courses and more people will take them.
Huw Pendry, Bridgend, Wales

Science is fab. I am in my 30s and am about to complete an A level in Human Biology and have really enjoyed it. I wish I had paid more attention to science at school. I am actively encouraging my children through my current studies to be interested and active in science and to question why things are the way they are.
Claire Littlejohns, Torquay, Devon

Be glad - in Spain the equivalent of A level students apparently do not do practical experiments for health and safety reasons. A Spanish student at my son's school in Surrey revelled in the quality and content of the science teaching here. Be wary the same approach does not come from Europe.
Caz, Ewell, Surrey

I'm doing my GCSEs now, and I can tell you that the students know the names of Darwin, Curie and Einstein because they're all in the syllabus, and the other people (the Beagle man and Mr Dolly the sheep) are not. I read the papers and interne articles, and they aren't mentioned there either. If they receive such a lack of media attention AND are not taught in schools then how are we expected to know them? On a related (but different) point, The Biology exam this year had nothing to do with human biology whatsoever. The kidney, the heart, the respiratory system are all in the syllabus and we spent a long time learning about them, but nothing has come up. To Sharon Kinge and James - I'm doing the Separate Science exams. It means that you have to take an extra, harder exam in each of the three subjects, but you get an extra GCSE and your Physics results do not affect your Biology results etc.
Andrew Lewis, Canterbury

I graduated from Sussex Uni in the early '90s having studied Physics - Ok - it didn't seem well respected at the time, but now I can fool anybody and hence earn lots of money doing close to nothing! - Kids! -Stick with the hard subjects now and reap the rewards later!
Matt, Rushden

Part of the problem is that doing difficult intellectual things is no longer considered attractive by young people. Attractive role model characteristics include things like being famous, being rich, showing off that you are rich, and being popular. All pretty vacuous traits. We need to try to change attitudes towards the rewards of undertaking difficult personal endeavours, that will not bring 'bling' or fame. Parents - limiting telly watching time to 1 or 2 hours per day would assist greatly in this ...
BS McIntosh, Milton Keynes, UK

Who says science/engineering is boring - try law!
Ken Poole, Buckingham, UK
When in the late 70s I studied biology and Chemistry to O level, as I was hopeless at mathematics, due to poor teaching, and hence missed physics for the same reason, I gained A and B grades, however later went to university to study law. How boring that was, totally unlike the way lawyers lives are portrayed in the media. Since graduating I have worked exclusively in engineering, on programmes such as military Radar/Arianne rocket/MRI body scanners - I am constantly learning - Who says science/engineering is boring - try law!
Ken Poole, Buckingham, UK

I have 3 science A levels, and a 1st class honours degree in engineering from a good university. So, what field do I work in? I work at the interface between business and technology rather than in a hard core technological discipline itself, since this enables me to provide a good standard of living for my family. Many of my colleagues took less educationally demanding routes to get to similar positions. I do not regret the difficult path I took to get here, and am proud of my scientific training and thought patterns, but I can see there were far easier routes. We will not see significant numbers of young people entering scientific careers, or staying in them in my case, until the rewards are there - it's that simple. This will have serious consequences for the competitive position of UK PLC.
Alex, Swansea, UK

I'm a scientist working in medical research and agree with Philip Copeland's comments - I assume he's a scientist! There are several points I would like to make: firstly, these findings are not surprising - my memory of school science (even up to A-level) is that it was poorly taught and I suspect many of my teachers did not understand what they were teaching. In addition, much of it was boring, irrelevant and outdated, for example, how does endless drawing of specimens help if you are going to be a career scientist? Secondly, science is hard - there is no way around that, but I am sure course syllabuses could be made exciting and more relevant. Thirdly, careers in science pay extremely poorly - we earn less than nurses, teachers and police officers and have no job stability - we work on 2 year contracts with no certainty of a position continuing beyond the end of the contract, so there is no incentive to chose science because there is little point continuing it if you're not going to do it as a career.
Lisa Clayton, Cardiff, Wales

I'm a mechanical engineering student, and regularly visit elementary classrooms to teach kids about engineering. They enjoy it so much more if they can build something, and then we explain why their ideas worked in simple terms. The difficulty with science is that sometimes teachers will only teach facts, which students memorize and that is all they know about science. It was the hands on learning in my schooling that engaged and continues to engage my interest, and I think it really gives students a personal interest in science, rather than a personal interest in what grade they will receive.
Katie, Indiana, USA

One good reason for students not being inclined to study science is the poor salaries paid to scientists, especially at the start of their career. Scientists are supposedly "professionals" yet are often paid the same as a semi skilled worker. It is notable that the same employers who bemoan the lack of Science Graduates etc coming into the workplace also expect to pay these people low wages.
Gary Huckins, Guisborough Cleveland

School teachers, especially in state schools, seem to have lost any passion for the subject
Tim, Bristol
Well GCSE science is pretty boring when it comes down to it. School teachers, especially in state schools, seem to have lost any passion for the subject, caring only for the grade results. When I did GCSE sciences my biology teacher was the only one that really seemed to enjoy the subject. He would go way off syllabus to explain his favourite bits, tell us funny stories from the medical journals and give weird little facts.
Tim, Bristol

Let's get real here. Conventional GCSE and A level courses in physics and chemistry are, for the most part, boring. I say this as a medical graduate with 3 science A levels. I have watched my two sons trying to get to grips with these subjects at school - they just cannot see the practical relevance of most of the topics. I must admit that I can empathise with this; it's difficult at the age of 15 seeing the relevance of forces, moments and work - to take one example. The courses need to be more practically-based, ie applied and delivered by teachers who can inspire. I must admit, having seen the syllabus for all 10 of my son's GCSE courses, subjects like business studies and economics look much more interesting than the science courses. It makes me wish I had done those instead!
Dr Liz Saunders, Worthing

I'm currently reading a Physics PhD and am also working in a local high school to try to interest kids in science. I've found that there are few relevant, hands on experiments. We're currently running a science club and a science fair and shockingly enough they love trying to blow the school up or testing products to destruction! New health and safety regulations have taken a lot of fun experiments out of the curriculum and yet there's two whole generations above me that survived them! Science requires a lot of effort (1% inspiration and 99% perspiration) and too many children don't want to put any effort in at all (not just in their science lessons).

The other thing the scheme is to trying to change is the social stereotypes. We need chemists and biologists in flashy cars and physicists to wear less black. There are few scientists in the public view. If you look hard enough you can find the odd science program tucked away on BBC2 but once upon a time Tomorrow's World was on: the technologies may not have always worked but it showed how science was developing and explained it. Personally, I think we need a film to do for science what Indiana Jones did for archaeology (Dr Christmas Jones in Bond 19 was a step in the right direction but even though I'm not a "typical" physicist I draw the line at hot-pants).
Helen, Durham, UK

Could it be that the problem lies with the fact that in primary schools science is taught for only one and a quarter hours and that most primary schools do not have any teachers with science degrees. To help plug this gap we launched Mad Science for primary schools in September 2004 and bring the type of equipment and programming that the state sector primary schools simply do not have access to. More than five thousand children have now enjoyed our lessons and the typical reaction is that they used to think science was boring and now realise it is cool. We intend to launch key stage three programmes in 2006 to keep the motivation through secondary schools.
Alan Sheridan, London, England

The sandals and socks are optional
Mark, Cambridge, UK
Yes, science is difficult. It's also beautiful and rewarding. If the pupils voicing these gripes were to follow through my chosen subject (theoretical physics) then they will discover mind blowing concepts greater than any dubious chemical they may consume. The sandals and socks are optional.
Mark, Cambridge, UK

Science is not the same as science teaching; the difficulty is how teachers in the UK are selected, trained and promoted. Teaching is about communicating and scientists don't often do that well, it's almost contradictory. The solution? Train excellent communicators to teach science and maths - ie the ability to teach should come first, not the ability to understand science. But that won't happen in this country because teaching has been de-professionalised and continues to be badly rewarded,
Anders Stark, Cardiff UK

I did not take any science subjects to GCE 'O' level and now regret it as I have found in later life an active interest in science. I am glad that my daughter enjoys science at school and college. She is now hoping to do a genetics degree plus a foreign language. I hope that this will lead to a rewarding career for her as she deserves this for all her effort
Roger Simpson, Stockport UK

I have just completed A levels in Chemistry, Biology and Geography all three considered sciences. I love science. Unfortunately I feel I am unable to pursue a career in research or lab work as how will live on 16,000 a year gross salary and having to repay university fees?
Nicola, Belfast

Oooh, so some children don't like to sit down and learn stuff, I'd never have thought it.... As principle Skinner said in the Simpsons: "Aaah science, the joy of sitting down, staying quiet and paying attention"
AJ, Glasgow

Science is stereotyped as nerdy just as politics is stereotyped as boring and art as a doss subject
Amanda Freeston, Hampshire, Farnborough
They make it sound like it is unexpected. I love Biology and Chemistry but I am hopeless with physics. I am just starting my 2nd year of A-levels in both Biology and Chemistry and it may not be easy but that doesn't matter. Science is stereotyped as nerdy just as politics is stereotyped as boring and art as a doss subject. I have been a voluntary class room assistant for a science class and it is taught at theory level only. No subject is interesting like that!
Amanda Freeston, Hampshire, Farnborough

What's the point in learning maths or science? In Britain you'll earn more as an astrologist, or feng shui consultant. Or a paper-shuffling civil servant with huge final salary pension paid for by the taxpayer.
Jason Wilkins, UK

Having spent a week in a local school encouraging pupils to consider a career in science it does seem that most want to earn as much money as possible with as little effort as possible. Is this really surprising given society's current inclination towards the "fast buck" (e.g. personal injury claims and bank loans)? As an aside, 29% say they would take physics were it not compulsory - I'm pretty certain that 29% of students don't take physics to A-level when given the option...
Phil, Oxford

Surely 49% of children saying that science lessons are not boring, confusing or difficult is a great result, given that it has probably always been the norm for a percentage children to automatically say that school lessons are just that, just because that's what you are supposed to say if you don't want to get labelled as a nerdy goody two-shoes. I'm sure a lot of science teachers out there go to great lengths to try and inspire children despite the constraints of having to teach a pretty jammed curriculum... and after reports like this wonder why they bother. Go science teachers!
Dug, Wimbledon, UK

Well, I couldn't name either the "Dolly the Sheep" man or the head of the Beagle mission either, and I'm interested in and follow modern science! They just aren't pushed by the media as well-known names (the things they did are pushed, but not the people behind them). And of course they are too new to get into textbooks. When I did chemistry O-level in the early '70s we did a lot of practical work and it was interesting. Not the "social effects of chemistry", the real hands-on work. If that has been dropped in the name of 'safety' (none of the science pupils at my school got injured, at least when I was there!) it's not surprising that it has become dull and boring. I applaud "Vic, UK"'s attempt to go beyond the dry syllabus and hope he is rewarded for it (rather than punished for teaching something he's not supposed to teach).
Chris C, Aylesbury, UK

I am 18 and I have my A level exams starting on Monday in Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Maths. I love doing science subjects. Its great finding how things work. It can be dull at times but all subjects can be. I think what is needed is more entertaining science teachers in secondary schools.
Michael Smith, South Shields, UK

Science teaching should start with the v young as a sort of Natural Philosophy type thing so that 7-14 year olds would have a better understanding of themselves and the world around them. They would then have the tools to see through the pseudo science guff that is peddled to them
Rob , Plymouth

Typically it goes like this: in the main section, you get doomsayers using studies saying that we're not taking the risks of asteroid strikes, or drink-related health problems seriously enough. In the lifestyle section, there's another article telling you a glass of wine a day, or the latest fad, will help you live long into retirement. Until we get more sensible scientific journalism which doesn't just cherry pick the most sensationalist stories for their own commercial gain, but rather form a balanced view based on all the evidence available (isn't that the job of a journalist?), the general public's perception of the value of science, and interest in following it as a career, will continue to wane.
James, London, UK
It's never really been cool to like science
Nikki , London, UK

It's never really been cool to like science, most movies and TV shows always portray the nerds as science geeks - self image is always important at that age so it is difficult to admit it you like geeky subjects! My uni has a project where some of its researchers teach part time in schools to try and portray a more exciting image of science. It's fantastic to see the excitement and interest when students come and visit our "real" lab and take part in very basic experiments. Most school children want to know "what's the point?" to everything so to see science being carried out in real life situations not just in the class room, helps inspire them to think about it as a possible career and not just boring lessons to drop as soon as possible! If it is any comfort to Clara Kenyon, I think that when asked to name a famous scientist, my fellow PhD students and I would also fail to mention Ian Wilmut and Colin Pillinger and probably name one of those the school pupils did.
Nikki , London, UK

I was rather surprised to Clara Kenyon's surprise that people did not name recent scientists as famous ones. Is that at all likely? I'm a mathematics student, and know a fair amount of science, but if you ask me to name one I am more likely to pick a historical figure. After all, it is hard to tell who is going to be the most influential scientist when you are living in the time. I am not surprised at all by this figure. Yes, science is very interesting for those who get it, but to expect everyone to is to be unduly optimistic. I do think society would be better off with everyone having a better understanding of science, but some are just not meant to progress any further than that.
Kieran Martin, Bath, UK

Science is not as easy as some subjects thus less people want to study it. Science and engineering has been vital to this country and the world in the past and will be vital in the future. I would encourage the government to reduce the financial hurdles to home grown students in science and engineering in those areas crucial to the economy in which too few students are at present studying.
Keith, London

I'm not surprised. I like science and enjoyed it - completed two A levels and currently studying it at university. But when our teacher at A level said to us, in response to us saying the class was usually enjoyable, "Chemistry, isn't meant to be fun!", that really killed a lot of enjoyment in the subject. I think that's where some effort needs to be concentrated!
Josh, London

I teach GCSE physics and chemistry, having previously had a long career in science research. The children are right; the specifications for these subjects are tedious. The coursework is more difficult than an EU grant application! To make it interesting (and useful) I show them things that aren't in the proper course. Also, I think that any student who is naturally interested in science would look for other subjects because the GCSE is so uninspiring.

For example, there's precious little real chemistry in the chemistry course. There's a great emphasis on safety - this should be taught separately - and on the 'usefulness' of chemistry in society! Chemistry should stand on its own feet. Lastly, we have academics complaining about the lack of scientists. Well, I can tell you that it starts here at GCSE. Incidentally, I already teach mobile phone technology, digital recording systems (CD players etc) and photography and some food science to relieve the monotony. And my lessons on safety are embellished with a career's experience of lab accidents! I could go on about job prospects in science..
Vic, UK

I am now coming to the end of a very long educational road - I'm finishing my PhD in chemistry this summer. Over the years I have been ever more unimpressed with the overall state of science education as I have seen more and more of the whole story. Science in schools is taught in a bitty, 'we can't do experiments in case we get sued way' resulting in a lack of inspiration for most pupils despite some amazing teachers out there. Also, this apathy I feel is indirectly affecting undergraduate science courses trying to make up for lost time.
Richard, Birmingham, UK

Science is difficult and complex - that's reality
Sean Peacock, Bristol
I'm a science teacher in Bristol and this survey does not surprise me. But that doesn't mean we need to try and "sell" science to the public and pupils. Science is difficult and complex - that's reality. Trying to pretend to make it anything less would be a lie. Pupils find it hard though because they cannot concentrate and engage in the information. Look at independent schools, why do they seem to be having success where state schools are not? State schools have made to many concessions on making science a more "accessible" subject.
Sean Peacock, Bristol

I graduated Royal Holloway with a degree in physics last year, and I can tell you why university level physics and chemistry is becoming less popular. It's because of the hundreds of degrees now available which require no academic ability and are simply seen as 'simple' or 'easy.' Degrees should be challenging academically, that's the very basis on which the university system is founded. If there's the option to do virtually no work and still emerge with a BA in Flower Arranging, a vast majority will take it, and the core subjects will lose out.
Jason Richardson, High Wycombe, UK

Once again dumbing down in our schools has made the headlines. If you want children interested in science exploit exciting science, such as the new A380 and the advanced materials and modelling techniques used in its construction or on the day we may decide to go into space remind kids that science made it possible. Also remind them that from the clothes they wear to the cars they drive in science made it all possible.
Chris Smith, Reading, UK

Whenever I see survey results that suggest "young people think Madonna is a scientist" or "British youth believes that Japan is a part of Europe" I always wonder whether the kids are just taking the mickey.
Tamara, England

So 49% of pupils don't think science lessons are boring, confusing or difficult? That's not a bad percentage for subjects that have long been associated with plaid shirts and pocket protectors. Hopefully the 16% of children that don't want to choose science as a vocation will go on to be musicians, artists, writers, bin men...
Adam McGee, Griesheim

How dreadful that something should be difficult. Mind you, in today's society it seems that reward for hard work is on the wane and popular films seem to delight in stereotyping science as being nerdy, so should we really be surprised at this?
JB, Bristol, UK

In 1974 when I started my O level courses Science was not compulsory. I never took any sciences, but most of my friends took one or more, I still ended up with a good education & 11 O' levels. This just shows that it is not just today's teenagers who will not a take science subject, there is always a certain percentage who back out.
My daughter is currently taking GCSEs and loves biology and chemistry, but hates physics. I think its really unfair that as a result of this her grade will probably come down due to the fact that she will probably not get good results in physics (it is a double award). Why can't they choose science as separate subjects, if it has to be compulsory can't they have a choice, why all three?
Sharon Kinge, Milton Keynes, Bucks

In response to Sharon Kinge's comment, there does actually exist a triple science award, in which you take the three sciences separately, but not all schools offer this. When I did my GCSEs I did this and had the same thing but with Biology being my weaker subject. However, as I did them separately, I still got As in physics and chemistry, as well as a C in Biology. However, since then my old school has stopped offering the triple award, and all students must now do the double, which is ridiculous.
James, Bristol

Good grief? What is this? Pandering to the instant gratification generation? Pretty well all achievements in science have been through determination methodology and blind luck on an approx 50:50 mix. e.g the transistor (blood sweat and tears) and the telephone (blind luck). Nothing in science is easy. Then again who would want to be a scientist these days given the typical salaries in the UK for research assistants and tech staff. Prestige is one thing, being able to feed yourself and your family comfortably is another.
Philip Copeland, Newry, Co. Down

I think Philip Copeland has a point. It is difficult to keep up the enthusiasm for science when salaries are so low. Also, jobs are not easiest to find and are usually not permanent. This has not put me (or many others) off wanting to do it, but I can see why people may opt out and go down 'safer' routes.
Tijana Blanusa, Reading

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