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Declining Student Enrolment in Science & Technology: Reality, Causes and Solutions


“OECD governments must take concrete steps to make science and technology studies more attractive” - that was one of the main conclusions of the international conference on declining student enrolment in science and technology courses. The conference took place in Amsterdam on November 14-15. It was organised by the OECD Global Science Forum and the Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Over two hundred participants from twenty-six countries debated ways to attract young people to science. All of the stakeholder communities were represented: government officials, business leaders, representatives of foundations, education professionals (teachers and those who study the educational process), scientists, students.

OECD analysts presented the results of a study of enrolment numbers, of contributing factors, and of potential solutions. This study documents worrying enrolment trends for fields such as mathematics, physics and chemistry, as illustrated by a decline in the number of university graduates of up to 30-50% over the last 8-10 years in physical sciences, in some countries. The study also describes the complexity of the causative factors involved, and presents some of the interesting remedies that have been tried. Although some of these have met with success, others are too recent to evaluate and, in any case, there is a general need for better evaluation methodologies in this area.

In addition to urging governments to be more concerned about declining enrolments, conference participants identified a number of specific priorities for further action such as:

• Girls and minority students are largely under-represented in S&T studies. They are a vast untapped reservoir of potential science students and professionals. Action plans directed towards declining student enrolment in S&T should systematically integrate concrete actions targeted at these groups.

• Young people often have stereotyped visions of S&T professionals and their careers. Students should be provided with accurate information (such as through direct contacts with real professionals).

• S&T curricula are often rigid and outdated. Their content should be updated to be more relevant to modern society and should include the acquisition of useful professional skills at the tertiary level. They should also be more flexible, allowing students to come back into S&T fields at various stages of the educational process instead of being definitively excluded after a first choice outside S&T tracks or following a break in their curriculum.

• Some teachers in primary or secondary education lack adequate S&T training. At the tertiary level, the needed pedagogical skills are sometimes lacking, particularly since evaluation of academics is usually based on their research work only. Resources and incentives should be provided for additional training throughout teachers’ careers.

The Amsterdam conference was unique due to the wide range of expertise and backgrounds of the participants, who agreed that concerted actions by all stakeholders will be needed to reverse negative enrolment trends. Enhanced communication and networking between interested professional are needed, with special emphasis on exchanging methodologies, experiences, curricula and best practices on a world-wide scale. Discussions are ongoing about practical ways to implement these ideas.

A policy-level report will be published in February 2006, containing findings and recommendations of the full OECD Global Science Forum study of science education, including the results of this conference.

Frederic Sgard | alfa
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