The challenges of getting students to love science

25 November 2011 , Educational Issues

I always give a quiz on the first day of my astronomy course. I don’t give grade to the papers, but I do go over the answers — they are always enlightening. I ask the students simple questions, such as: what is the difference between a star and a planet; who was Copernicus; why is it hotter in the summer than in the winter (in the northern hemisphere)? A large majority of my students cannot answer those questions at the start of the course. In the general public, it’s even worse: about one-third of all Americans believe that the sun revolves around the earth (and other howlers).

Now, science education is not making students capable of answering such “scientific” questions. Science, as too few people realise, is a methodology, a way of thinking, exploring the world, and establishing facts. As I keep repeating to my students: more important than what we know is how we come to know it and how we establish that the information is correct. And that is why we insist on science education as widely as possible; it makes people think better.

Science education has become a must in this day and age. Many issues confront us now, requiring important decisions that can only be made correctly if we (officials and society at large) have a good grasp of them. For example: energy usage and waste, carbon footprints and climate change, genetically modified foods and genetic therapy, cloning, stem cell research and the production of new organs, the correct usage of antibiotics, and environment and quality of life. Even future presidents need scientific training, and that is why the University of California at Berkeley (rated among the top five in the world) has a course titled “Physics for Future Presidents”.

Science literacy affects the future of societies. In his state-of-the-union address this year, US President Barack Obama called on more science education. So has Bill Gates, the founder and leader of Microsoft. And two years ago, science writers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum published Unscientific America: how scientific illiteracy threatens our future.


Scientific knowledge and thinking is for everyone. In schools, science education is supposed to be imparted to all students and at all levels; even students majoring in the arts and humanities are normally required to pass a few science courses. For the general public, there is “informal science education”: what planetariums and science museums provide; what one gets from science shows on TV, radio, and websites; what smartphone apps now give; etc.

So what is the situation in the Arab world? Over the past decade or so, there have been a few studies, workshops, and Unesco reports investigating the state of science education in the region.

There are serious efforts being made in a number of countries, addressing the curriculum, the methods of teaching science, the need to continuously train teachers, and other aspects of the problem. But international tests show that Arab students in general are still far behind in their mastery of science at various levels, and more dangerously it has become apparent that students are getting largely disinterested from scientific careers, giving us bleak prospects for the future.

Why is the situation dire? From my long engagement with science teachers in various Arab countries, I can summarise the reasons in the following points:

  • The heavy burden on the teachers: too many class hours and too many tasks, especially in comparison with the (inappropriate) salaries;
  • The heaviness of the content of almost all science curricula currently taught (a wrongful emphasis on quantity);
  • The lack of resources (laboratory equipment, computers, internet access) in many schools;
  • The dearth of extra-classroom scientific activities, such as field trips, astronomical observations, discussions with scientists, etc.
  • Most importantly, I must stress the educators’ general lack of success at explaining the nature of science as a mindset for the exploration and the understanding of the world.
  • How do we go forward now? How do we improve science education and make students love the subject and want to pursue it for the benefit of society?
  • In my view, the following are important steps that can help redress the situation:
  • Begin by highlighting the relevance of science today to a host of societal issues, many requiring our informed knowledge for decision making;
  • Explain the nature of science and its relation to other aspects of human life: environment, economics, etc.;
  • Improve resources in schools: human resources (particularly the student to teacher ratio); financial resources (salaries of teachers, number of classes taught by each); material resources (experimental apparatuses, information technology);
  • Re-train teachers, not in occasional workshops but in sustained programmes, to increase their capacity to produce fresh teaching material, better delivery methods, new assessment tools, etc.

Let us act together and in earnest. Our children’s future depends on it.