Want more scientists? Make school classes relevant to pupils lives.

I recently signed up to receive email updates from Science magazine. Scrolling down the list of highlights last week, I was struck by an entry about performance in high school science students. Some of you may remember me describing my lovely wife-to-be as having 97% forest based DNA. This is a fact. A more useful description of her though is that she’s a science teacher, and so – always on the look out for ways to make her life easier – I hit download and read the article over a cheeky lunch of peanut butter sandwiches.

The question of whether we want more of our young people growing up to be scientists is a controversial one, given that many of the newly fledged graduates in my own corridor at Bristol University’s School of Chemistry have been struggling to find jobs  over the past few months. This is probably due to the recession I suppose, but still, it does feel like there are simply a lot of us and enough jobs.

If we decide we definitely do want our offspring to go into science though, many educators often bandy around the idea that if we make science relevant to young people’s lives they will become much more interested in it. Also, whether kids actually want a full-blown career or not, it’d be good if they could be interested in the subject. Making the teaching relevant might make this possible. But is there any real evidence that this is the case? And, vitally, could this be a way of getting the kids in my fiancée’s science lessons to shut up?

Chris Hulleman from James Madison University in Virginia was skeptical about the anecdotal evidence behind this idea, but was optimistic that it could be proved more definitively. The problem with previous tests of this theory was that when giving pupils a task to do which makes science relevant to them, it’s difficult to separate the relevancy bit of an excercise from the just plain exciting part.


 Chris Hulleman

For example, about two weeks ago I got up very early a trudged across Bristol to a generic secondary school in order to chat with some sixth formers about why doing a degree in chemistry might (or might not) be a good idea. I also explained (in, I feel, quite fun and exuberant mediums – which I won’t go into) why chemistry is really interesting and relevant to everyday life. I explained that diabetes affects about 3% of the population and that one day through the (insert grandiose voice here) awesome power of my research group’s chemistry, we hope to be able to control it using newly synthesised molecules.

So if I had taken a survey after chatting to them about my work, I very much hope I would have found them to be a tad more enthused about my beloved subject than before. But could we really put this down to the fact that I had made chemistry seem more relevant? Perhaps (just perhaps) they had found this new face more diverting than their regular teacher. Maybe my language was clearer. Maybe the fact that the class was on it’s best behaviour for a visitor came into play.

So despite him having rather silly hair, Hulleman was actually rather clever to devise the study he did. In Hulleman’s experiments students were set eight essays over the course of a term – although on average the pesky blighters only completed 4.7 of these. Half of them, selected randomly, were asked to write simply a summary of what they had learned over the past few weeks. The other half wrote an essay  about the ‘usefullness and utility value of the course material in their own lives’. The teachers were blind to the experimental conditions and did not read or mark the essays. Using these stringent guidlines the researchers have, I think, come about as close as it’s possible to eliminating the other variables from their analysis. 

Hulleman’s results; with bars representing students who wrote  control essays (blue)  and essays about relevancy (white). 

Upon collecting the papers, getting copies of the students test reuslts for the following end of term tests and conducting various surveys the researchers were able to use statistics to evaluate their results. These showed  that pupils who already had high expectations on their own performance were (understandably) not affected greatly by the writing the essays. On the other hand, where students had a lower interest in science, the relevancy essays improved both their grades and interest in the subject by a significant amount. 

So we now have some evidence to back up this age-old assumption – or do we? I wonder whether these essays would have the same effect in School’s in other countries? Or if we were to turn our attention from sweet little 14 year olds to hardened cannabis-smoking 16 years oldsin inner-city schools. I wonder if these would be enlivened by realising that science really is relevant? Maybe Hulleman has a little more work to do.



C. S. Hulleman and J. M. Harackiewicz, Science, 2009, 326, 1410 – 1412.

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