A headline in The Observer caught my eye this weekend: “TV shows inspire a new generation of children to study science”.
The article beneath it was an interview with Prof Brian Cox, discussing the contribution that recent TV series on science may have made, alongside other factors, to an increased interest in studying science.
My initial reaction was “hooray!”. In addition to the science on TV, in recent years scientists around the country have been doing more to engage young people about science. Some have created their own bespoke engagement activities; many are using social media to engage wider audiences; and there are excellent organised programmes such as “I’m A Scientist”. And there are all the efforts of teachers too, creating opportunities to involve scientists in their teaching.
Is it all starting to make a difference? Can we collectively point to an upsurge in students taking science subjects at all levels as an “impact” of our efforts? That would be great news… but sadly we’re not there yet.
The evidence mentioned in the Observer article for an increased interest in science was: “a 36.1% increase in the number of students doing GCSE science exams, compared with the previous year”. Reading around further, I came across a BBC news article from last August, which interpreted a 3% increase in A-level entries for science and maths as evidence that “science has become cool again”.
Unfortunately there are some problems with all those figures as evidence for an increased interest in studying science. Firstly, as a commentator noted below the Observer article, the impressive “36.1% increase” refers to raw numbers taking single science at GCSE. Science in some form is compulsory at GCSE, so that figure actually represents an increase in numbers taking the “least science” option at GCSE. In any case, the GCSE waters were muddied for 2012 because a change allowed some schools to put classes through single science at age 15, creating a one-off spike in numbers.
But if “science has become cool again” as the BBC article suggests, then the proportion of A-level entries in science should have increased. Otherwise, any increase in raw numbers could just be because “A-levels have become cool again” (for whatever reason, perhaps partly demographic), rather than science subjects specifically.
What we need to know, then, is what proportion of A-level entries were in science subjects, and how that has changed. And the same is true for “triple science” GCSE entries, and UCAS applications for science degrees.
Q: how has the proportion of GCSE entries (as a percentage of all GCSE entries) changed overall for the “triple science” subjects from 2011 to 2012?
A: the proportion of GCSE entries in biology, chemistry and physics increased from ~8.3% in 2011 to ~9.2% in 2012; so that’s an increase of ~0.9%
[Here's the working, from these Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) data:
biology entries 2011: 147 904; chemistry entries 2011: 141 724; physics entries 2011: 140 182. Total "triple science" subject entries in 2011: 429 810. Total number of GCSE entries in 2011: 5 151 970; triple science total as a proportion of that: ~8.3%
biology entries 2012: 166 168; chemistry entries 2012: 159 126; physics entries 2012: 157 377. Total "triple science" subject entries in 2012: 482 671. Total number of GCSE entries in 2012: 5 225 288; triple science total as a proportion of that: ~9.2%]
Q: how has the proportion of A-level entries (as a percentage of all A-level entries) changed for science subjects from 2011 to 2012?
A: the proportion of A-level entries in biology, chemistry and physics increased from ~16.5% in 2011 to ~17.0% in 2012; so that’s an increase of ~0.5%
[Here's the working, from these JCQ data:
biology entries 2011: 62 041; chemistry entries 2011: 48 082; physics entries 2011: 32 860. Total for all three science subjects 2011: 142 983. Total number of A-level entries 2011: 867 317; all three sciences total as a proportion of that: ~16.5%
biology entries 2012: 63 047; chemistry entries 2012: 49 234; physics entries 2012: 34 509. Total for all three science subjects 2012: 146 790. Total number of A-level entries 2012: 861 819; all three sciences total as a proportion of that: ~17.0%]
Q: how has the proportion of UCAS applications (as a percentage of all UCAS applications) changed for science degrees from 2011 to 2012?
A: the proportion of UCAS applications for courses categorised as “biological sciences” and “physical sciences” increased from ~12.0% in 2011 to ~12.5% in 2012; so that’s an increase of ~0.5%
[Here's the working, from these UCAS data:
"biological sciences" applications 2011: 210 832; "physical sciences" applications 2011: 94 133. Total for both science categories 2011: 304 965. Total UCAS applications 2011: 2 547 983; both science categories total as a proportion of that: ~12.0%
"biological sciences" applications 2012: 201 653; "physical sciences" applications 2012: 93 587. Total for both science categories 2012: 295 240. Total UCAS applications 2012: 2 368 565; both science categories total as a proportion of that: ~12.5%]
Overall then, between 2011 and 2012 there were small increases in the proportions choosing to study science in more depth, whether by taking triple science at GCSE, science A-levels, or applying for science degrees. A welcome change in the right direction, but hardly the upsurge for science that the headlines suggest.
Given those more modest gains, I’m also left wondering what would have happened without all the increased efforts to engage young people about science, from the work of scientists and teachers, to the science on TV. And now that we’re heading in the right direction, what can we do to build up the momentum?