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Last Updated: Friday, 30 March 2007, 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
Why the resurgence in science?
By Shola Adenekan

close-up of circuit board
Why are youngsters switching back on to science?
For Sam Jenkins, the allure of science began at a very tender age with the regular visits he made with his parents to natural history museums and exhibitions.

Now 19 and studying biological sciences at Exeter University, Mr Jenkins had a short placement with a pharmaceutical company whilst studying for his GCSE.

The experience, he believes, encouraged him to look for a career in the biosciences as he was able to experience a wide array of tasks, showing him the diversity of a career in the field.

Helen Simpson, an 18-year-old microbiology student at Reading University plans to work in research or in a microbiology laboratory after graduation. Like Mr Jenkins, she fell in love with science at school and thought it would be a good idea to carry on with what she was good at.

"I think that good teachers that are enthusiastic about sciences are the most important thing that a school can do," she says. "If your teachers are excited about sciences and actually know what they are talking about then the students will be keen about it."

Baffled

Both Mr Jenkins and Ms Simpson echo a new trend among young people entering and applying to university. The sciences are making a strong comeback.

The latest statistics from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service on applications to join full-time degree courses, show double-figure percentage rises compared with the same time last year for physics, chemistry, mathematics, engineering and technology.

We really make a point of doing fun, practical things with all pupils
Science teacher Richard West
Some of our top universities have been closing down their science departments.

While admission officers admit that they are baffled by this sudden and unexpected surge in interest, many secondary school and university tutors are convinced this is a result of long hard work by many working our education system.

"We really make a point of doing fun, practical things with all pupils when it comes to the sciences," said Richard West, the head of science and physics at St Peter's Collegiate School in Wolverhampton.

"We are encouraging after school science activities like astronomy and animal clubs and taking part in national competitions."

Some of Mr West's students have been taking part in the annual "paper-clip challenge" at Leicester University, part of the school's efforts to get pupils to take up physics.

The challenge uses fun, hands-on activities to encourage young potential physicists to recognise the practical applications and uses of the subject.

Careers

Experts believe it is this type of approach that is fuelling young people's interest in the core sciences at university level.

They say the introduction of fees may also have focused students' attention on long-term career prospects and the need to have training in subjects which underpin much of the healthcare, pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors.

"The message has finally got through," said Dr Averil Macdonald, a physics lecturer at Reading University, who was recently named one of the UK's top six women scientists.

"Many youngsters are realising that if you want to get on in life, science has to be one of the best ways.

"Young people have woken up and are realising that you can't just go to university because of a general interest, you have to think about it.

"They want a qualification of value. They want to get a good job and good prospects."

There is a real interest among the applicants that I meet in genetics and the use of the huge new flood of genetic information
Prof Nick Talbot
Exeter University
It is a view shared by Prof Nick Talbot, the head of biosciences at the University of Exeter, where applications have risen by 23%.

Prof Talbot thinks that in the case of biological sciences, there is an increasing awareness among youngsters that conservation issues, environmental problems and the impact of climate change on the biodiversity of the planet are all problems that will need to be solved by their generation.

"There is a real interest among the applicants that I meet in genetics and the use of the huge new flood of genetic information in understanding how organisms work," he said.

But while schools and universities may be talking up their successes, business leaders say that the UK still needs to double the proportion of science and engineering graduates by 2014 or see skilled jobs go abroad.

At the moment, Britain produces 45,000 science and technology graduates each year but the CBI says this would need to jump to 97,000 annually within seven years just to fill new positions.

Gender gap

CBI deputy director-general John Cridland said: "Our future success will depend on our ability to compete not only with our traditional international rivals but new ones too, particularly India and China.

"These two emerging giants are producing hundreds of thousands of engineers and scientists a year, all ready for a slice of the pie which the UK has traditionally done so well in."

Others say that our universities need to analyse their workplace cultures, policies and practices in the same way as many companies and other organisations are now doing.

With women now making up more than half of university students yet only a little over a third of science and engineering undergraduates, Pat Morton, the strategic information manager of the UK Resource for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) says the first step is for British universities to increase their recruitment and retention of women.

"It is essential that science increases the percentage of women not only entering but also progressing into science and engineering work.

"We have been working with a number of universities to support female students through mentoring," she says.

Universities say that they are working hard to maintain application rates, to engage with applicants and their parents and tell them of the quality of the courses that they offer.

But they agree that we need to encourage more young women, ethnic minorities and to maintain science funding in universities.

Prof Talbot said: "We also need to ensure that more of our talented graduates enter postgraduate research and read for higher degrees.

"Britain has an excellent record in scientific research, perhaps not fully appreciated by the wider public.

"We need to publicise this more and encourage a greater take-up of research posts in universities by our own graduates."




SEE ALSO
Applications to university rise
14 Feb 07 |  Education
Expert teachers 'key to physics'
20 Mar 07 |  Education
Concern over decline in physics
11 Aug 06 |  Education
Pupils put off science, peers say
05 Nov 06 |  Education

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