Why are students ignoring science?

If the CAO points requirement for commerce at UCD is 470 and for science just 325, how is it that students are continuing to …

If the CAO points requirement for commerce at UCD is 470 and for science just 325, how is it that students are continuing to favour business subjects over science subjects? Recent statistics have shown a significant decline in the number of students taking science in the Leaving.

Last year only 12 per cent of Leaving Cert students took chemistry, and just 16 per cent took physics. The numbers of students taking science at diploma and certificate level have declined by 43 per cent since 1996, according to Forfás.

The Government is aware of this crisis and a €178 million scheme to address the issue has been proposed by the Task Force on the Physical Sciences, a body set up by the Government to make recommendations. It has come when it is most needed, according to Dr Danny O'Hare, who chaired the task force. "Ireland's economic future depends critically on the number of young people doing science and engineering," he says.

The unanswered question is why students are turning their back on science subjects. Some blame the secondary science curriculum. Ireland's examination-driven approach makes the teaching and learning of physics and chemistry more difficult, according to the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation's Benchmarking Report on Science, Technology and Mathematics.


Others believe the controversial "teaching problem" is to blame. A straw poll of students suggests that teaching is a real issue.

"The teachers stand at the top of the class and drone on all day," according to a Dublin student questioned by The Irish Times. "They think that if they say what they know, hand out a few sheets and give the students work for the following day, the students will be interested and soak it all up."

The lack of a practical dimension as provided by hands-on experiments is also a problem. Too much theory and not enough practical work has caused science to become uninteresting, the student argues. Another Dublin student said that he didn't continue with chemistry because it was "too boring".

The need for interesting lab activities is also recognised by the microchip manufacturer, Intel. It said in its submission to the task force that not enough "exciting examples" are being used in the teaching of physics and chemistry .

There is evidence that better teaching methods can inspire interest in children and teenagers, as seen two weeks ago at the Irish Times/RDS Science Today demonstration lecture.

Presenter Paul McCrory had children jumping over the seats to volunteer for the magician/scientist. He showed them how to balance metal nails on top of each other, how to make marshmallows blow up, and how nappies work. Children aged from eight to 15 enjoyed his antics, even if some of the more "mature" older ones were too cool to admit it.

McCrory has a degree in science, but this is not the case with most science teachers at second level, according to Intel's submission. "Few, if any, trained chemists or physicists are entering the teaching profession," the company said.

The lack of a clear career path after getting a science degree is also a problem for many students. The perception is there that science is not something you can get a job out of, while business is.

"It's not relevant to real life," states one Dublin student. "I couldn't see myself being a scientist."

The pre-exam pressure on students also mixes badly with the difficulty of science subjects. Students spend two years studying to prepare for one month of Leaving Cert exams, while attempting to lead a normal life. With the stresses of teenage life and the pressure of exams, many students believe these subjects are too difficult to study.

Will the task force's suggested investment help reverse the slide in the number of students studying science in the Leaving and at third level? O'Hare believes that the investment must work. "Unless there is a major national effort to reverse the fall-off, any other money we spend on attracting overseas investment will go largely to waste," he says.

Richard Shaffrey is a Transition Year student from St Mary's College, Rathmines, who was on placement at The Irish Times