Across OECD countries, close to 40% of high-school students who come top in science subjects have no interest in pursuing a science-related career, while almost 45% do not want to continue studying science, according to a new OECD report. For countries that need to develop high-level skills in order to drive productivity and innovation, that’s bad news.
“Top of the class”, the latest report from the OECD’s PISA assessments, shows Finland and New Zealand in the lead for science excellence, with one in five 15-year-olds reaching top levels of science proficiency. In Greece, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Turkey, by contrast, fewer than one in 20 students make top grades.
Countries with more top-level science students do best in science overall. In United States, the average performance of 15-year-olds is below the OECD average because of a large number of low performers. But the U.S. has the same proportion of top performers as Korea, one of the best performing education systems overall but with weaker performance at the top.
In Japan, Finland and Austria, more than one in three students from disadvantaged backgrounds become top performers. In many other countries, by contrast, social barriers to excellence in education remain very high.
The study shows that while many high performing 15-year-olds have a general interest in scientific careers, about half are not well informed about what this entails. Less motivated high-performing students tend not to enjoy science lessons and not to get involved in science outside school, even if they do well on a test.
Overall, the report shows, schools in most OECD countries do a reasonable job in transmitting science knowledge and skills but they fail to engage students in science and science-related careers. That could be a handicap for tomorrow’s science-based societies, which will increasingly depend on people both pushing the frontiers in science and taking a positive attitude to science as citizens.
Schools and careers services should do more to improve knowledge of science as a career, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said. Schools should make an effort to make science studies enjoyable. Outside school, societies can also do more to engage students in science.
About two thirds of top science students do not watch science programmes on television or read science related articles and more than three quarters do not visit web sites about science topics or attend a science club. Young people can be encouraged to take an interest through internet or computer game content that applies scientific principles, better television programming and cartoons based on science that engage younger children more.
“It is important for the future strength of economies to develop a large and diverse talent pool ready to take up the challenge of a career in science,” Mr. Gurría observed. “Schools have an important role to play in making science more interesting, but as societies we must also make science more accessible outside school.”
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