Whetting young appetites for science

Photo caption: Children try out networked computer laptops in the Digitial Classroom at the Microsoft stand at the CeBIT Technology Fair on March 1, 2010 in Hannover, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Global rankings of students’ academic performance are fairly predictable. Asians and Europeans share the top spots while the United States is down the list, further than everyone — most of all Americans — believes it should be, and laments it loudly.

The European Union usually shines in such international assessments, especially with the crowning jewel of Finland, lauded around the world as the country providing its children the best possible education. Western Europe always puts in a respectable showing, and eastern members such as Hungary often pop up near the top as well. So compared with the U.S., Europe faces far less serious problems in its education system, right?

“Wrong,” says David Jasmin, one of the premier innovators in European education, who has just launched a new EU-funded project, Fibonacci, aimed at improving the quality of and appetite for science education. “We are facing the same challenges as the U.S.,” he said, particularly in the fields of math and science.

While calling it a “global problem,” Jasmin believes Europe is suffering more than other parts of the world from the documented decline in the number of students pursuing math and science careers.

“Lots of studies show there is a lack of human resources in science and technology,” he said. At the same time, Europe is also spending less in research investment than either the U.S. or Japan.

Concerns like Jasmin’s were the subject of a 2004 study, “Europe Needs More Scientists,” which confirmed a drop in university enrollments in subjects such as chemistry, mathematics and physics throughout the EU. Greece was the only country among the then-25 member states not experiencing a reduction.

Once upon a time, math and science were the paths to “reach for the stars” — sometimes literally, in fields such as aerospace. But even that industry has lost its luster among top graduates, as representatives from government, business and academia heard earlier this year at a workshop of the EU’s Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe, ACARE.

There Rolls-Royce Deutschland’s Director of Engineering, Norbert Arndt, confirmed his company is hearing from universities that the best students “are now heading straight for the financial and banking sectors when they complete their studies. We need to work hard to keep young people interested in our field, to feel the passion that we felt,” he said.

The council’s co-chair, Joachim Szodruch, underscored the urgency of the matter. “The question of young people is a strategic question,” he said. “Without young people we have no strategy. But we need to do more than just talk about it. We need to take action.”

Participants suggested stepping up efforts to engage children at early ages, with special science days at schools, field trips to aerospace facilities and technology competitions. But most agreed that initiatives at the local and regional levels are not enough and there needs to be more EU support.

Jasmin embodies the EU’s effort to reverse the worrying trends and believes that stimulating children’s natural curiosity is the key to a sustainable interest in the sciences. With a PhD in physics and a contagious enthusiasm for science education, the Frenchman has spent the last 15 years working on projects such as “La main a la Pate” — meaning “hands in the dough” or “hands on” — a French program promoting “inquiry-based science education” (ISBE) in primary schools.

While heading “La main a la Pate” since 2005, Jasmin has sought to expand the experiment, serving as coordinator for the EU-funded program Pollen, inspired by one of the founders of “La Main” — the late French Nobel-prize winning physicist Georges Charpak. Jasmin is carrying on Charpak’s belief that science education is crucial at an early age to develop reasoning and curiosity.

“The process of science is based on creativity,” he said, “on the way to look at your everyday life. So we try to have very stimulating projects for the students … not only to have future scientists but also to give these students the tools to be good citizens.”

From 2006-2009, the Pollen project’s 12 “seed cities” launched reinvigorated science education programs involving not just the 2,000 teachers and 36,000 enrolled students, but local and national government authorities, members of the scientific and academic communities, businesses and parents.

The follow-up evaluation read like an educators’ dream come true: “The methods used by Pollen have proven to raise primary teachers’ interest, self-confidence and skills in science teaching and therefore the quality and quantity of science teaching sessions. Pollen increased children’s interest in science learning activities. Particularly, the gender gap in science was reduced as a higher share of girls tended to actively participate in science-related activities. The increased interest and participation was even stronger with weaker students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Jasmin notes that the European Commission was sufficiently convinced of the value of the ISBE method to give him another grant to continue along similar lines with the three-year Fibonacci Project, which launched in January. Fibonacci will continue the model and create a pan-European system to disseminate the type of teaching and learning utilized in the Pollen model.

If Charpak and Jasmin’s faith that early science and math exposure can help develop productive and benevolent citizens needs tangible proof, a good place to find it would be among the teams of university students competing in the “Imagine Cup” (www.imaginecup.com), a technology contest for high school and university students sponsored annually by Microsoft.

This year’s task was to create a project that could help achieve the Millennium Development Goals, United Nations aims including the eradication of hunger and poverty, combating disease and achieving universal primary education. More than 325,000 students from around the world competed to “Imagine a World Where Technology Helps Solve the Toughest Problems,” with the world finals in Warsaw in July.

Teams from Asian countries won most categories, but there were Europeans close behind, with Belgium taking second and France taking third in “Game Design,” and France taking third again in “Embedded Development.”

But the big “winner” in this competition was the world, as students projects could have real-world applications. For example, the German team created “Mediator,” which matches up medicine manufacturers and suppliers in the developing world with relief organizations who would prefer to purchase their items in or closer to the countries they are helping. This also helps foster sustainable industry in the target nations. Belgium’s “Nom Nom Productions” created a game in which players help combat various environmental or manmade threats to make the world a better place. A Polish team wrote a program that translated sign language into speech and vice versa.

The German students say they first entered the competition for the school credits they would earn, but “the deeper we entered the area of development aid, the more we got involved emotionally.” When they presented their project to relief organizations, the Mediator team said, “we felt like we could really change something.”