Are you in MINT condition?
The subjects known in German by the acronym MINT, that is, mathematics, information technology, natural sciences and technology, are generally not ranked very highly amongst most students’ favourite subjects. In spite of this, the heroes of the most successful comedy series on television at the moment are all scientists: experimental physicists, theoretical physicists, astrophysicists and aerospace engineers. “The Big Bang Theory” stars people who used to be called swotters and who are now known as nerds. Series or films featuring scientists are becoming increasingly common. Yesterday’s loners like facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google founder Larry Page or Bill Gates are today’s rock stars. Even the way nerds dress is now fashionable. Digital watches and square black-rimmed glasses are in fashion and no longer an indication that the wearer is interested in formulae and calculators only. Are scientists and researchers our new heroes?
This presents a stark contrast with the gloomy picture painted by current politicians, suggesting that there is a lack of qualified personnel in the field of science and technology. Although the numbers have increased marginally, there are still too few students choosing courses in science or engineering. On the website mintzukunftschaffen.de (in German only), an initiative endorsed by German chancellor Angela Merkel to promote interest in the sciences, we are told that “Germany’s economic position is threatened due to the lack of graduates with MINT qualifications (mathematics, information technology, natural sciences and technology). The shortage of qualified scientists and engineers is a structural problem that is already acting as a brake on growth and innovation, causing a major loss of value creation in the German economy – and the trend is towards further loss.” That doesn’t sound good. At the same time, there seem to be vast numbers of initiatives started by foundations, research institutes, professional associations and academic committees trying to counteract the problem.
“Komm, mach MINT” (Come on, join in/ study MINT) is one of many online initiatives and is specifically geared towards women. There are still too few women in natural sciences and technology university courses or jobs. The aim of the initiative is to try even harder to increase the percentage of women in the field. Some of the approaches are somewhat unusual. The research project “Career guidance through entertainment”, which is jointly organised by researchers from several institutions including the TU Berlin and is sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research together with the European Social Fund, came to the conclusion that films and series inspire young people to choose their careers – more so than schools. This has been effective in the USA for some time and is now going to be applied in Germany. The “MINTiFF” network (mathematics, information technology, natural sciences and technology in the format of fiction for equal opportunities) plans to increase the representation of science in fictional television formats. The website says that “charismatic female characters act as motivational career role models for young women and generate a wave of interest in the relevant subjects. This is precisely the focus of the MINTiFF project at the TU Berlin. What opportunities do films and series provide to minimise the disinterest in careers in natural sciences and technology that has been shown by young women? How can achievements in scientific and technical research with social, societal and environmental implications be brought closer to a broader audience?”
It is also often debated whether it would be beneficial to teach science subjects to girls and boys in separate classes for a few years. Might boys and girls become more interested in science topics if they are taught separately? There are numerous arguments both for and against. Some critics of coeducation believe that girls can participate in class more confidently and easily when classes are held without boys in the same age group. Proponents believe that it depends more on the teacher’s projection of gender roles in class. A discussion on this subject is presented on pages 20 and 21, with the contrasting opinions of two experts on this subject.
But is it only the way that science is taught in schools that leads to a future lack of qualified graduates? Are there any other possibilities for attracting young people to the natural sciences? One possibility is to awaken interest in science subjects as early as possible, that is, already in preschool. Educational programmes to this end have already been developed for daycare centres in all of the federal states. There are even targeted programmes to attract very young children to the natural sciences. One of these initiatives, the largest in Germany, is the “Haus der kleinen Forscher” project (“house for budding scientists”), which is also sponsored by the Ministry of Education and Research. Through the project, children get to know and understand natural phenomena by doing little experiments. However, the project has also been criticised. Neurobiologist and neuroscientist Prof. Gerald Hüther denounces the project for going beyond children’s comprehension. If children are steered in a particular direction, they come to believe that their own ideas are not regarded as important. This eventually takes the fun out of exploring. Dr Salman Ansari, an expert in the field of science education with a doctorate in chemistry, also takes a sceptical view of this kind of early childhood education. We questioned him about this topic in the interview on page 16.
Once children are at school, it is no longer simply a question of awakening and strengthening their interest in the sciences. The school’s priority is to convey knowledge that is necessary for academic achievement and general education. Too often, students don’t understand the actual uses of the formulae that they are taught in chemistry, physics or mathematics. Pure theory does not really seem to be applicable in practice. Project-based teaching is one method that can be used to counteract this problem. This is obviously not new and no longer a secret. Still, it is often a big challenge for teachers and education staff to integrate projects into lessons when there is only a limited time to complete the required material. However, it is possible to do this successfully, as we illustrate with some examples of projects at Phorms schools.
Students at the Phorms School Frankfurt built their own boats and won the second prize in the solar boat race held at the Römerberg in Frankfurt.
All they got was a little package containing a solar cell, a propeller and a motor. The children had to use those components to build a boat that can maintain a straight course, doesn’t capsize and can go as fast as possible. The race was organised by an association in Frankfurt called Umweltlernen (learning about the environment) and Mainova AG donated the contents of the packages.
During their science lessons for this project, the girls and boys in Year 3 learnt all about renewable energy, solar and wind power, how electric motors work and the difference in the positive and negative poles of a battery. “First the children need to find out how the solar cell is connected to the motor so that the boat can actually go,” explains Sarah Byrne. She is the science teacher at the Phorms School Frankfurt and was responsible for the project, along with her colleague William Inkley.
The components of the boat were provided, but the design of the boat was left up to the children. The children had to decide by themselves on the shape or the colour and whether to use plastic or Styrofoam for the material. When they took the boat for its first test drive, the children soon realised that the boat needed a keel in order to keep it going straight ahead.
The girls and boys were divided into teams of two with each team consisting of one boy and one girl. “There wasn’t any distinguishable difference in talent or interest, and they cooperated without any problems,” Sarah Byrne explains.
5 June 2013 was the big day. A total of 600 children with 300 solar powered boats competed against one another. One of the teams from the Phorms Taunus Campus qualified for the final and finished in second place.
“I think that the children learnt an incredible amount during this project, because they tried to do so many things by themselves and this gave them a deeper understanding of the ideas in context,” says Sarah Byrne. At the end of the project, the children were adamant that they keep the solar cells and motors so that they could design and build other little machines.