Science communication can help with STEM teachers’ training

A study on how to boost South Africa’s ailing pipeline of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) suggests the inclusion of science communication coursework in tertiary teacher training programmes.

Blessing Nemadziva, Steven Sexton and Catherine Cole, researchers at the University of Otago, New Zealand, report in an article in the South African Journal of Science that there is a trend in most STEM degree programmes in which science communication “(sometimes packaged as ‘science in-and-for society’) is becoming a compulsory subject … with the idea that each graduate should be able to communicate science as much as they can do science.”

In the article, ‘Science communication: The link to enable enquiry-based learning in under-resourced schools’, they refer to other research that reveals that science communication strategies applicable for the classroom include role-playing, storytelling, games and do-it-yourself sessions. This is to inspire a sense of wonderment for science and to inspire young people to pursue careers in STEM.

The researchers assert that, essentially, “it is expected that teachers would be more comfortable using science communication strategies in their classrooms if these strategies had been part of their professional training programmes”.

They point out that South Africa has a paucity of skills in STEM, which are imperative for the growth of the economy. They refer to 2009 research, ‘Skills shortage in South Africa: Case studies of key professions’, that indicate that the skills shortages in STEM emanate from the inefficiencies in the education and training pipeline, known for its low maths and science output.

They indicate that “improving skills in STEM disciplines has been identified as essential in meeting South Africa’s economic growth targets. Despite this, learner uptake and completion rates within these subjects is currently well below international standards.”

Curriculum revisions

The researchers point out that the South African school curriculum has been revised three times in 15 years. The changes to national science policies and strategies were in response to issues such as the STEM skill needs of the economy and global competitiveness programmes linked to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“Over this period, changes to the school curriculum primarily reflect policy flaws, but there is little evidence to suggest improvement of individual subject content”, while they refer to research that describes this as ‘change without difference’.

The researchers assert that learners who were in Grade 1 in 2003 were exposed to Curriculum 2005, then the Revised National Curriculum Statement (2004-11) and Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (2012-14) during their schooling years. “These changes would obviously affect both learner experience and performance, as well as teaching practice.”

They indicate while STEM enrolments and STEM graduation rates have reportedly increased by 9.6% and 11.3%, respectively, learner eligibility to STEM programmes and first-time enrolment numbers have been fluctuating and have been relatively flat over 2015-19.

A possible reason for this incongruency could be that students were failing to complete programmes within stipulated time frames and, therefore, remained in the system for longer. “For example, as of 2015, only 31.9% of contact students doing three-year degree programmes at public HEIs (higher education institutions) successfully graduated within the stipulated time frame.”

To add fuel to the fire, school learner performance has been consistently below international standards. South Africa has been participating in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study since 1995, which compares the performance of learners from different countries in mathematics and science at grades four and eight and features at the bottom in performance. As of 2011, South African assessments were performed on grade nine learners as the assessment was too difficult for local grade eight learners.

They refer to research titled, ‘Comparing science teaching styles to students’ perceptions of scientists’, that indicates that teaching practices can have an effect on learner performance in STEM subjects, as well as influence his or her general perception about science careers.

Orientation of science teachers

Previous research indicates that enquiry-based practices are the recommended science teaching orientation, which proves effective in helping learners shift towards science careers. This is a learner-centred teaching method that encourages learners to ask questions and investigate real-world problems. From this, learners are afforded the opportunity to explore their curiosities.

Referring to a study titled, ‘Learning science, learning about science, doing science: Different goals demand different learning methods’, they point out that ideal learner experience is achieved through ‘doing science’ (… enquiry-based).

Nemadziva, Sexton and Cole stress that the majority of public schools have a lack of resources for practical learning, making it difficult for teachers to implement enquiry-based teaching methods. They refer to research that reveals that, of 2020, out of the 23,267 schools inspected, 24% used pit latrines, 25% had no reliable water source, and 16% were without or with unreliable electricity supply.

To address the shortfall of STEM graduates, Nemadziva, Sexton and Cole indicate that science communication literature presents opportunities for “ ‘simple fixes’, which can be incorporated into formal STEM teaching in places where there are inadequate resources”.

“The strategies can enhance the learning experience of learners in the 80% of South African public schools which lack adequate facilities for STEM learning.”

They assert that the integration of science communication strategies into school science can be easier when introduced through teacher professional training programmes.

An example of this is school-university partnerships, whereby teachers are partnered with STEM postgraduate students to co-teach science classes. Such programmes in the United States and Taiwan helped improve learner cognition in science as well as improving teacher science content knowledge and confidence in using enquiry-based pedagogy.

“In addition, the presence of the graduate scientist in the classroom benefits the science teacher who can observe and learn new strategies of communicating science for their own professional development.”

They point out that the 2019 White Paper on Science, Technology & Innovation has provisions to encourage such partnerships through providing incentives to universities which adopt schools for STEM skills training.

A case for improved science communication

Another strategy is improvisation. The researchers refer to an article, ‘The use of improvised resources in science classrooms in South African township schools’, which tested the efficiency of improvised materials as teaching tools in under-resourced South African schools in research that involved using red cabbage juice as an indicator to test the pH of various household products.

“Results showed that the improvised cabbage juice indicator was effective in helping learners understand acid-base concepts better, relating the science to daily experiences, and sparking scientific curiosity,” explain the researchers.

“The advantage with science communication is its flexibility which allows strategies to be customised to suit specific contexts (... social contexts and education level of target audience, making use of available resources, relatability with target audience). However, using these strategies in a science classroom could be a challenge to most teachers who might lack the necessary skills.”

The researchers refer to previous studies that reveal that the use of everyday resources in hands-on classroom activities showed that teachers would require training for effective use of such resources in their teaching.

Meanwhile, positive attitudes towards science from parents or guardians, and their active involvement in learners’ homework exercises, is a key factor in learner engagement with science.

However, research indicates that thousands of learners attending poor public schools “do not get help from parents in science and mathematics homework due to issues with language and complexity of assignments”. This is compounded by a 12% illiteracy rate in the wider South African population as of 2019.

But this also indicates that public understanding of science campaigns have yet to make significant inroads in South Africa.

“There is, therefore, a need to increase support for public engagement initiatives using different media to make science accessible and attractive as a career route for high-school learners. With increased accessibility to information through TV, mobile phones and the internet, one promising public engagement initiative is increasing support for story-based science video programmes,” explain Nemadziva, Sexton and Cole.

They argue that, while education reform is needed at a national scale, “we make a case for using science communication practices in science classes as a more immediate solution to generate greater interest and understanding, and encourage learners to pursue careers in science”.

They recommend the adoption of science communication practices into science classes as an approach to help improve STEM education as well as improving the appeal of STEM careers among high-school learners.

“We also recommend the increase in public engagement of science initiatives through either media or outreaches as a means to attract high-school learners into STEM careers.”