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Education Survey

Science Losing Luster among Taiwan's Students


Science Losing Luster among Taiwan's Students


Nearly 70 percent of Taiwan's secondary students say they like science, but 80 percent do not want to become scientists. CommonWealth Magazine's 2010 Education Survey reveals they are being turned off by the way science is taught.



Science Losing Luster among Taiwan's Students

By Ting-feng Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 460 )

In discussions of public affairs in Taiwan, one phrase finding increasing favor is limang, or being "blind to reason." Late last year when health authorities were being bashed for encouraging people to get inoculated against influenza A (H1/N1), Department of Health minister Yaung Chih-liang described the critics as being "blind to reason and sensationalistic." Chien Chih-yung, a renowned physicist and chair professor at National Chengchi University, has said that Taiwan lacks sufficient scientific literacy to analyze problems, leading people to simply parrot what others say.

If this blindness to reason represents the status quo, any hope for the future lies with junior high and high school students, who have drawn the most attention and the highest expectations as Taiwan's "scientific citizens" of tomorrow. Compared to previous generations, this new group of scientific citizens has exposure to many more channels of scientific knowledge, and teaching methods have increasingly focused on integrating science with daily life. But how do these "scientific citizens" actually feel about their learning experience?

To find the answer to that and other questions, CommonWealth Magazine conducted a survey on science interest in October targeted at junior high and high school students. Based on 2,654 valid questionnaires received, a response rate of 83 percent, the survey found that today's students have considerable interest in scientific fields, but a wide disparity exists between boys and girls in the confidence level and interest in studying science.

Positive Feelings toward Science

Just over two-thirds (67.4 percent) of the poll's respondents said they were interested in learning about science, an indication that science is no longer the dry, inaccessible discipline it once was among a majority of students.

But further analysis of the results revealed that students' confidence in their ability to learn about science and their interest in the subject clearly differed between genders.

In terms of interest, 75.9 percent of male students expressed a positive attitude toward science learning compared to only 59.4 percent among female students. 

There was an even more pronounced difference when it came to their enjoyment of the discipline. For example, while 11 percent of all respondents said they "really liked" science, 16 percent of the boys but only 7 percent of the girls felt that way. In other words, although most male and female students had favorable attitudes toward studying science, boys were more intensely interested in the subject than girls.

The disparity was also apparent when probing the teenagers' attitudes on how confident they were in their science skills. When they were asked to evaluate their math ability compared to their peers, 9.9 percent of the male students said they were "extremely self-confident" in their abilities – the most assertive of the choices given – compared to only 3.1 percent of the female students. In the specific disciplines of physics and chemistry, the findings were the same, with boys (8.2 percent) three times more likely than girls (2.4 percent) to express extreme self-confidence in their abilities. 

The survey's results indicate that male students tend to have a higher level of motivation and greater self-confidence in studying science than their female counterparts.

This trend falls in line with traditional stereotypes in Taiwan, where women have been seen as being more suited to study the liberal arts, law and business, while men have been directed toward science, engineering and agriculture. The future generation of scientific citizens has clearly not distanced itself from such a pattern.

The trend might also reflect the lack of female scientist role models throughout history, leaving women without recognition of their abilities and the motivation to achieve.

One of the survey's questions requiring students to supply their own answers asked them to name "the scientist you most admire." Of all the names given, only one, Marie Curie, was female.

To try and reverse this dynamic, the National Science Council commissioned National Yang-Ming University and Kaohsiung Medical University to organize the International Conference on Women Scientists, held for the second year in 2010. The aim of the conference, to which high school students are invited, is to begin righting the gender imbalance within the scientific community.

Aside from the gender issue, access to information has also complicated the picture. Students today are exposed to more and broader sources of scientific knowledge than ever before, but that also makes it easier for them to get trapped in a maze where science and pseudoscience are hard to distinguish.

The survey found that "school teachers" represented the major source through which students are exposed to scientific knowledge, cited by 83 percent of respondents. Following closely behind were "television" and the "Internet," cited by 67 percent of respondents. "Scientific reading material outside of class" was chosen by 54 percent of the students, and was followed in descending order by "science museums," "home," and "science camps," which were cited by only 12.2 percent of respondents. That was consistent with another question in which more than 80 percent of respondents said they had never attended a summer or winter vacation science camp.

Aside from the home (where the family's impact on science education is closely related to the parents' educational background and their social status), schools along with TV and the Internet represent the most direct formal and informal sources of popular scientific knowledge. In contrast, scientific reading outside class, science museums and science camps are all influenced by accessibility and consumer preferences, making them less convenient and direct than schools, television or the Internet. The survey discovered, for example, that 45.5 percent of respondents said they "did not often read" science-related books and another 23.2 percent said they "rarely read" such books.

 How should this phenomenon be interpreted? Maybe the answer is "with mixed feelings." On the one hand, students are being exposed to a far greater diversity of scientific sources than in previous eras, helping increase their interest in and enthusiasm for studying science.

On the other hand, however, we are in the midst of an information explosion, in which the Internet and television dispense an endless stream of information. In this environment, if sources are not filtered and verified, these diverse channels may also blur the lines between science and pseudoscience.

From the perspective of science literacy, has the scientific knowledge students are absorbing become richer and more abundant, or are they simply devouring superficial "fast food garbage"? It's a question worth monitoring in the future.

Junior High Students: Information Is King

"Science" is a broad term frequently mentioned in the classroom, but when actually taught, it must be divided into more narrowly defined subjects. What picture, then, emerges from the interest, and sense of accomplishment, that Taiwanese students feel when studying different subjects?

Nearly 30 percent of junior high students in the survey said "information" is their favorite subject, while physics and chemistry finished last, preferred by only 8 percent and 5 percent of male and female students, respectively. The subject most worthy of reflection is math, which ranked second on the junior high students' list of favorite subjects, but also at the top of their "most disliked subject" list. Just over a third (35.8 percent) of respondents said math gave them headaches and was hard to take an interest in.

High School Students: Math No. 1

High school students also seem to have a love-hate relationship with math. The subject was named the favorite of both boys and girls (with biology also high up on girls' lists of favorite subjects), a result likely to surprise many people.

Like their junior high peers, high school students also gave physics and chemistry the cold shoulder, with the two being named as favorite subjects by fewer than 10 percent of respondents.

The most apparent gender gap in interest in a particular subject was seen in physics. Only 3 percent of female high school students named it as their favorite subject, and it led the pack among girls as their least favorite subject. This indicates that girls not only lack interest in physics, but have almost completely abandoned it.

Students' interest and sense of accomplishment in a subject is directly correlated to the expectations students have of how much class time will be devoted to it. When students at both the junior high and high school levels were asked if too much, too little or just the right amount of class time was given to math, physics and chemistry, fewer than 10 percent of respondents said "too little" while around 20 percent said "too much."

Why did so many students feel too much class time was devoted to those subjects? And what are the finding's implications for how teaching methods should change if science education is to gain greater popularity?

The OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)  advocates that students not simply master their school curriculum, but obtain the "knowledge and skills needed in adult life."

Science Education: Disconnected from Daily Life

But that recommendation has yet to hit home in Taiwan. The survey found that 39 percent of respondents had never done a science experiment, and 37.1 percent said they performed less than one experiment per week. 

A closer look at students' expectations of experiments found that nearly half (45.5 percent) hoped to be able to do "one to two experiments a week,", an indication of how much students enjoy doing them.

It is evident, therefore, that Taiwan continues to teach science with a more traditional emphasis on book learning, in the process failing to meet students' expectations of more hands-on experimentation.

In fact, when students answered the question, "Why don't you like certain subjects?" the two most common answers were that the subject was "too hard" (69.8 percent) and that they "have to memorize a lot of formulas" (43.9 percent).

Perhaps teachers can think more about how to get students more directly involved in what they are learning and create ways to make science meaningful in the general context of daily life to spark greater interest in the discipline. Ultimately, teachers are still the primary sources on which junior high and high school students rely for knowledge, and they have the greatest influence.

A Career in Science? 80% Say No

Does having an interest in science contribute to a student's determination to become a "scientist"? Apparently not. More than 80 percent of respondents said they had no desire to pursue science as a career.

Perhaps students place scientists on too high a pedestal, which dissuades them from trying to pursue the profession at an early age. But there may be another, more optimistic, explanation for their reluctance to aspire to be scientists. In the past, Taiwan's science education was based on elitism, its goal mainly to nurture a small pool of gifted students. That may have left many people with the impression that scientists had little to do with themselves.

But today, the philosophy of science education is more geared toward universality, application, and the meshing of concepts with daily living. The goal of raising an entire generation of scientific citizens has become just as important as cultivating a small group of elite scientists.

About the Survey

CommonWealth Magazine's 2010 Education Survey was conducted between Oct. 4 and Oct. 29, 2010. Some 3,200 questionnaires were sent to Taiwan's junior high and high school students using stratified proportional sampling, with 2,654 valid questionnaires collected, an 83 percent response rate.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier