Children are natural born scientists, with an insatiable curiosity and desire to experiment – but studies have demonstrated that somehow, through years of formal education, most teenagers lose their enthusiasm for science. By the time they are applying to college, less than a quarter say they remain very interested in science, which they consider “complicated” and “difficult” rather than “fun” or “inspiring.” (See the findings of the CFI’s “Canadian Youth Science Monitor”).
This week, Ken chats with Bonnie Schmidt, founder and president of Let’s Talk Science, about the importance of keeping young people engaged in STEM fields, and some recommendations for science teaching at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. She emphasizes that “what’s happening at K-12 is actually THE most important economic driver for this country.”
Since 1991, Let’s Talk Science has mobilized more than 26,000 college and university students to bring experiential, hands-on STEM activities to some 5 million elementary and secondary school students. LTS provides web tools, governance, resources, guidance and support for the student teams at no charge. “We love bringing science to life!”
LTS has been leading Canada2067, an ambitious initiative examining international trends in STEM education, and mapping future directions for the next 50 years. Canada2067 brought together Grade 9/10 students, millennials, parents, teachers, industry and non-profit organization leaders, and policy makers across the country, and there was considerable agreement on some general principles, including:
To keep students of any age engaged with course content, it has to be clearly relevant to their daily lives.
Hands-on, group activities have been a key component of the Let’s Talk Science program for decades. (We explored the importance of experiential learning in this episode).
Bonnie emphasizes that the best way to create relevance for students is to move towards “an interdisciplinary, issues-based” approach to teaching, addressing big global challenges from multiple perspectives. In Saskatchewan, for example, there are some interesting experiments in multidisciplinary senior-level science courses. But colleges and universities will need to accept those interdisciplinary credits, and higher ed instructors need to revisit the tradition of “teaching how we were taught.”
“We’re not investing enough in our teachers,” Bonnie laments, at any level of education. Teachers need resources, training, and time to develop lessons and share best practices.
“Parents are the #1 influencer of the students taking optional credits at high school,” and it’s crucial that parents urge their children to persist in STEM subjects even when they are challenging, to keep higher ed doors open. Parents also need to keep an open mind about non-traditional teaching approaches, such as experiential or inquiry-based learning.
“The world is undergoing such transformation right now,” Bonnie says, that we need to reconsider how we teach STEM in primary, secondary, and tertiary classrooms. Memorization is a far less important part of learning. We need accelerated ways to upskill and reskill displaced workers, and more pathways between universities and colleges. “We’re all recognizing that change is needed,” Bonnie says. “I have never actually seen the stars align with a desire to change in education at all levels that I’ve seen in Canada over the last 5 years.”
Bonnie Schmidt holds a PhD in Physiology from Western University, was identified as one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40, is a member of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She has chaired numerous national science education committees and task forces, and served on the board of governors of Ontario Tech University and the board of directors of the Ontario Genomics Institute.
Special thanks to Let’s Talk Science, who hosted Ken as keynote at the Digital Literacy Summit in Toronto in late January 2018, and provided the videographers for this interview.
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