The State of Junior Science

Introduction

Education requires constant reflection, in light of the changing demands of the
technological, sociocultural, economic, and political climate; and science education is no
exception. When compulsory education was introduced in Australia a little over a century ago,
people had not yet flown aeroplanes, women did not vote, and there were no talking films.
Since then, as we moved through the vocational education of the masses during the industrial
era and into the information age, our society has experienced massive changes in lifestyle,
employment, communication, the way we handle our finances, science, technology,
understanding of how people learn, and so on. The stereotypical family in which father went to
work while mother stayed at home and did home duties now represents less than one quarter
of the population. A number of school-aged children in Australia are employing digital
technology to earn in excess of $100 000 per annum. It is perhaps rather amazing, then, that
the processes of junior science education, and even schooling in general (Middleton & Hill,
1996), appear to have remained remarkably static.

All is not rosy in junior science education. Overall, there is evidence that the interest and
enjoyment of Australian students in being involved in science activities is decreasing as they
move from upper primary to junior secondary school (Adams, Doig, & Rosier, 1991; Baird,
Gunstone, Penna, Fensham, & White, 1990; Rosier & Banks, 1990; Speering & Rennie,
1996). A similar decline in students' interest in being involved in science has been reported in
the United States (Barrington & Hendricks, 1988; Hofstein & Welch, 1984; Piburn & Baker,
1993; Yager & Yager, 1985). Reasons for this decline include the growing abstraction,
complexity, and difficulty in understanding science, a decline in both academic and social
student-student and student-teacher interactions, increasing uncomfortableness with open-
ended activities as opposed to achieving a single correct result, and disenchantment with the
teaching strategies used in secondary science classrooms (Piburn & Baker, 1993; Speering and
Rennie, 1996).

Further, there is a need in Australia for more people to be involved in science (Australian
Science and Technology Council, 1991; Willis, 1990; Wright, 1993), and the interest and
enjoyment of students in being involved in science activities is an important factor in
determining their further participation in science (Fensham, Corrigan, & Malcolm, 1989;
Hofstein, Maoz, & Rishpon, 1990; Rennie & Parker, 1991). There is also a need to improve
both the perception of the broader community about scientists and the broader community’s
understanding and appreciation of the role science plays in society (Cribb, 1991a, 1991b,
1991c; Department of Industry, Science & Tourism (DIST), 1996; Kahle, 1989), although
there is evidence that young people are increasingly appreciating the role of science and
technology in Australia’s future (DIST, 1996; Woolcott Research Pty Limited, 1995), with
television appearing to be playing a significant role in this trend (Lowe, 1993; Woolcott
Research Pty Limited, 1995). According to Layton, Jenkins, Macgill, and Davey (cited in
Aikenhead, 1998), traditional science education does not normally enhance an adults
understanding of his/her everyday world of science-related problems, social issues, or practical
decisions. Negative perceptions about scientists and about the role of science in society are
likely to curtail the further participation of students in science (Harvey, 1995; Purbrick, 1997;
Rosenthal, 1993) and may be a detrimental influence on, for example, the future of students
when they take their role as voting citizens of our nation. In this paper, I share my
deliberations about the desirable nature of Junior Science education.

Some Myths

Let me begin by attempting to dispel what I consider to be some myths in science
education.

Myth 1:    The role of Junior Science is to provide preparation for the senior sciences.

I have no qualms about a student who has not studied Junior Science enrolling in a senior
science. The traditional pre-requisite for Senior Chemistry and Senior Physics, for example, is
relevant mathematics. Further, only about one half of Year 10 students in Queensland, for
example, proceed to a senior science (any senior science, including Agricultural Science, Earth
Science, Marine Studies, and Multi-Strand Science) the following year. Teaching Junior
Science as preparation for senior science could alienate nearly one half the population; they
will never study a senior science.

There is no evidence that such preparation is necessary for students who do proceed to a
senior science. Indeed, to the contrary, Sadler and Tai (1997) found no strong relationship
between grades in college physics and taking physics in high school, and exposed the
methodological flaws in previous studies which attempted to conclude otherwise. There has
also been wide discrepancy reported between the skills and knowledge considered by
secondary teachers to be important for success in college science courses and college science
instructors’ views about what is important (Yager, 1986).

Certainly, a rigorous academic Junior Science course could accelerate some students
through their science education. However, in the typical Australian context, such a course
would simultaneously, and needlessly, discourage many more students. What is more, in the
American context, the attitudes reported as important by college science instructors are
significantly more developed in students emerging from science/technology/science (STS)
courses than more traditional, discipline-structured courses (Kirkpatrick & Yager, cited in
Yager, 1986).

Caution is also appropriate if using Junior Science as a selection process for the senior
sciences. Not only is it not a pre-requisite, but, as Woolnough (1995) showed, intending
biologists, chemists, engineers, and physicists differ in what influences and motivates them. It
is therefore difficult to visualise the role of a composite assessment for Junior Science in senior
science selection procedures. Used for selection purposes in the worst possible way,
assessment in Junior Science could be designed to ensure that a large group of students fail! It
is hoped that this practice is no longer occurring.

Myth 2:    Junior Science marks the beginning of training for professional scientists.

It is postgraduate studies that prepare professional scientists, although senior sciences can
begin the apprenticeship. Even many graduate students never proceed to becoming a scientist,
moving instead to areas such as journalism, business, teaching, sales, law, and management. If
students want to keep their science-based options open, they are well advised to study both
chemistry and physics during their senior years, but only about 11% of Queensland students
(about 3 students in a class of 28) fit this description. A similar scenario appears likely in other
States and Territories (Dekkers, de Laeter, & Malone, 1986). Presenting Junior Science as a
watered-down academic science course just doesn’t make sense; even our future professional
scientists don’t need such. Who would ever design a school music program, for example, on
the assumption that all students intend to become professional musicians? Fensham (1995) put
it well when, in expressing dismay at how the National Curriculum in England and Wales
showed disregard for the Royal Society’s great vision of Science for Everybody, he concluded
that “every school child in England and Wales will be sacrificed on the altars of the academic
sciences” (p. 28).

Why, then, should all Junior Science students know Ohm’s law or be able to use a bunsen
burner? Anyone purchasing a gas camping appliance can obtain a quick lesson about how to
operate it from store personnel! One can have a nutritious diet without knowing the difference
between protein and carbohydrate and without being able to conduct a chemical test for
starch. It may be valuable that a cellular biologist be able to name the parts of a cell, but why
should every junior science student be asked to memorise this information? One can learn
much basic cellular biology without doing it. This perhaps demonstrates another reason for
declining interest in science among young people, as expressed by Williams (1992) when
reporting a study of public attitudes to science:

Students believed that the standard of Australian science was simply lower than anywhere else in the world . . . . How could our youngsters get it so terribly wrong? . . . This appeared to some extent a reflection of their learning process, studying what they saw as outdated and irrelevant issues. (p. 18)
Myth 3:    Practical work per se is a good thing.

The implication that a large amount of practical work in a science course directly implies
something about the high quality of the course has long irritated me. On the contrary, research
concludes that much practical work is unproductive and contributes little to students’ learning
of, or about, science (Berry, Mulhall, Gunstone, & Loughran, 1999; Clackson & Wright,
1992; Goodrum, 1987; Hodson, 1990; Tasker, 1981). Practical work can often be as
monotonous a diet of activities as swimming routine laps of a pool or practising musical
instruments; and science can be more interesting than this. Hands-on experiences are, of
course, a valuable part of a science course, but they need to be implemented with much care
rather than on the basis that liberal doses of practical work, any practical work, is a good
thing.

Myth 4:    Students won’t learn unless they are assessed via formal, traditional examinations.

Primary and postgraduate students learn without formal, common, end-of-term (or
whenever) examinations. Imagine the reaction of teachers if funding for their attendance at
conferences was dependent on satisfactory performance on a formal end-of-conference written
test prepared by the conference organisers, on the premiss that without such a test they
wouldn’t learn! Ninety-six percent of what makes a person good on the job is attributable to
factors that do not show up on cognitive ability tests (Wigdor & Garner, 1982).

Is it being too cruel to suggest that much testing in secondary schools represents a display
of teacher power aimed at forcing students to learn things that they don’t really need to learn
anyway? I invite readers to add further myths of their own.

Why Study Junior Science?

What, then, could be a rationale for Junior Science being a desirable element of junior
curricula? Let me suggest four reasons.

Science plays a key role in how we think and, as such, our social and political progress. A
Junior Science program for all students should reflect this rationale.

Desirable Features of a Junior Science Program

A secondary education should comprise a four-pronged curriculum: self-esteem and
personal development, lifeskills training, learning how to learn and how to think, and building
specific academic, physical, and artistic abilities (Dryden & Vos, 1997). In light of the
foregoing discussion, how might Junior Science contribute to such a curriculum? I suggest
that the learning experiences in a Junior Science program:

In the next paper in this series, I will describe an approach to learning which was designed
to allow these features to be implemented.

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