Supporting Scotland's STEM Education and Culture - Science and Engineering Education Advisory Group - second report

Recommendations for improving the profile of science in the community and enhancing science and engineering education.


Scotland has a long, distinctive and distinguished record of discovery and innovation in science, engineering and technology through the industrial revolution and the 20th century, and is widely renowned for the quality and inclusiveness of its education system. Innovative science, engineering and technology are as fundamental to Scotland's future economic prosperity as they have been to its economic development over the past two centuries, driving growth in the fast-changing world of the 21st century. They are a major element of Scotland's heritage, culture and well-being, and our prospects as a successful nation in the 21st century will require new generations of ambitious young scientists and engineers to drive forward innovative technologies. Scotland also needs a scientifically-literate population of well-informed and responsible citizens to engage in driving forward not only our economic ambitions but also those of sustainability, the improvement of our natural and living environments, and the delivery of our climate change targets.

Young people grow up surrounded by technological innovation. Their lives are increasingly influenced and enriched by science and engineering in ways that they take for granted and of which they are perhaps largely unaware. Their lives will also be enriched by breakthroughs in medical science and technology, and by scientific advances as yet unimagined. Yet at the same time they worry about the impact that rapid scientific and technological progress will have on their future quality of life, on the local and global environment, and on the sustainability of the Earth's resources. They need to be persuaded of the capacity of science, engineering and technology to solve the many problems now facing societies around the world. In the present financial climate, they worry about their place in society, their future employment and career choices, and their capacity to cope with the many demands and uncertainties that they will encounter. They will need to be equipped above all with increasingly complex and sophisticated technical and cognitive skills in order to take advantage of the challenges and opportunities that will confront them throughout their working lives.

These many concerns and expectations are shared to varying degrees more widely across society. It is therefore of the greatest importance to Scotland's future that our young people experience science and technology both within the school environment and outside the classroom in ways that reflect its relevance to their lives, illuminate their understanding of the world around them, and inspire them to engage positively with science as a possible career choice. Just as importantly, science should challenge young people as responsible citizens able to make informed choices and decisions about the big social, moral, ethical and environmental issues of the day.

The economic importance of science, engineering and technology to Scotland

The importance of young people continuing with science subjects cannot be overestimated. Science, engineering, technology and mathematics ( STEM) underpin our economy. The Scottish Government has identified Energy and Life Sciences as two of its 'priority sectors' in its overall economic strategy, where Scotland already has leading expertise and the potential for growth. The facts are worth stating to give an indication of the importance of these sectors and to illustrate the relationship of science, engineering and technology to future economic activity and employment:

Energy [1]

  • About 30% of the FTSE 100 is founded upon economic activity dependent on the Earth's resources, of which Scotland has an abundance. In 2012, about 60% of the UK's total energy needs are still met by oil and gas produced from UK reserves, ensuring continuing strong demand for scientists and engineers in the UK oil and gas sector.
  • Renewable energy has the potential to support at least 16,000 new jobs over the period 2009-2019. Estimates of the job potential in clean fossil fuels and carbon capture and storage in Scotland, and through the export of technology and services, run to 10,000 jobs. In carbon capture and storage, a new technology involving the capture of CO 2 at major sources such as power stations and subsequent offshore subsurface disposal, Scotland is already a world-leader.
  • The wider energy sector in Scotland contributed over £4.8 billion in GDP, around 5% of the Scottish total, in 2006, and employment in the energy sector stood at 40,700 in 2007, around 23% of the UK's total employment in the sector.

Life sciences [2]

  • The life sciences cluster in Scotland in 2008 employed almost 31,500 people in 620 organisations. Turnover in 2006 was estimated as over £3 billion. Total value of the life sciences sector exports for 2007 stood at £675 million.

Other priority sectors

Within the Creative Industries [3] , the most obviously technologically-based sub-sector also employs many in Scotland, with around 17,500 employees in the computer games, software and electronic publishing industries in 2007, while a further 8,000 people were employed in broadcasting, many of whom would be involved in the technical operations side.

Low Carbon Economic Strategy for Scotland [4]

The Scottish Government's Low Carbon Economic Strategy, published in November 2010, predicts that an estimated 60,000 new 'green jobs' could be created by 2020, in sectors across the economy, including ICT, tourism, transport, agriculture, forestry, chemical sciences, life sciences, food and drink, and environmental technologies. Most of these jobs would have a direct science, engineering or technology relevance.

The Scottish Government and major employers in STEM-based industries in Scotland have expressed widespread concern about the future supply of well-qualified, highly-skilled scientists and technicians to meet demand in the above sectors of industry and more widely across the economy.

Background to the SEEAG Report

'Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose'

Scotland has many of the essential elements of a strong education system by international standards. It has an all-graduate teaching profession, structured induction of newly qualified teachers, a strong framework of standards and expectations, and professional learning and development offered by national organisations, education authorities and teacher associations. However, relative international performance indicators show that this potential is not yet being fulfilled.

In 2003, the Scottish Science Advisory Committee's ( SSAC) report Why Science Education Matters [5] made a number of recommendations for the future improvement of science education in Scotland to meet perceived concerns and challenges. The report called for a programme of curriculum change that moved away from a cluttered, content-dominated and assessment-driven curriculum with little scope for teachers to include topical or innovative material to inspire learning.

It recognised that the lack of science specialists and the absence of science infrastructure and technical support in primary schools were major obstacles to sustaining the interest of young people in science across the transition into secondary education, and the need to improve the uptake of science and the standard of science educational attainment in secondary education. The report made several recommendations regarding primary school science facilities, teacher and technician support in primary schools, and continuing professional development ( CPD) to tackle this problem. It recognised the deficiencies in school careers advice around pathways into science and career opportunities for science graduates, and recommended that CPD be provided to address these deficiencies. It recognised the need to reverse the decline in public confidence in science. It called for better co-ordination of science education activities and support across Scotland, and recommended the formation of local clusters of primary and secondary schools, industry, colleges, research institutes and universities to support and improve science education. Concern was expressed about the age structure of a science teaching cohort in which, in 2000, one-third of science teachers were over 50 years old, and a half over 45. These issues all remain priority concerns in 2011.

On the positive side, there has been a slight decrease in the proportions of STEM teachers over 45 and over 50 - the reverse of the ongoing ageing trend of the wider Scottish secondary teacher cohort. But most importantly, the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence ( CfE) as a radical and systemic educational reform addresses the SSAC call for radical curriculum change, opening up exciting new opportunities for bringing real-world relevance, wider contexts and interdisciplinary thinking to science learning, teaching and assessment.

It is against this background that the disappointing Scottish results of the Trends in International Maths and Science Survey ( TIMSS) carried out in 2007 [6] were published in December 2008. Fiona Hyslop, then Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, said the TIMSS report " painted a picture of Scotland standing still while other nations pushed by'' [7] . The survey compares the performance of Scottish pupils in science and mathematics at ages 9-10 (P5) and 13-14 (S2) every four years with those of 59 other OECD countries. Scotland's average scores in S2 mathematics, and P5 and S2 science in 2007 declined from 2003 levels back to 1995 levels, but remained similar to 1995 and 2003 levels in P5 mathematics. Scotland's best performing pupils in the survey showed a lowering in standards of attainment. These results demonstrated a need to review the extent to which science and its relevance to the skills, which children need for life and work in the 21st century, is embedded within school education.

The Scottish results in mathematics and science from the Programme for International Student Assessment ( PISA) 2009 [8] , measuring performance by 15-year-old pupils (S4 level) every three years in 65 OECD countries, also left no room for complacency. In mathematics, Scotland's mean score was lower than in 2003, similar to 2006, and similar to the OECD average, while in science Scottish pupil performance was similar to 2006 but above the OECD average. While this reflects the relatively stronger performance in science by Scottish pupils at qualifications level than was demonstrated at P5 and S2 level, Scotland has not improved on its place as a mid-ranking performer [9] . The OECD report on Scotland [10] went on to warn that ' Scotland could slip through the ranks. It could be bypassed economically and become more divided socially', noting the widening gap in achievement from about P5, marked social differences in basic achievement and in SQA qualifications attainment, declining student engagement and interest especially in early secondary, and comparatively high levels of young people not in education, employment or training.

Insofar as mathematics is the language of science, we should also be concerned that poor performance, and therefore low confidence, in mathematics is likely to have a negative impact on young people's performance and confidence in science and therefore on the uptake, enjoyment and performance in all sciences at secondary level and beyond.

The School Science Summit, Action Plan and SEEAG Remit

The TIMSS survey results prompted the Scottish Government to hold a School Science Summit in May 2009, whose main recommendations included:

  • more collaboration across the profession
  • seamless transition from primary to secondary education
  • better and more creative use of ICT
  • closer partnerships with industry/business and academia
  • improved provision of CPD and initial teacher education ( ITE)
  • improvement in the image and status of science in schools
  • greater relevance to the 'real world' in science education at all levels
  • sharing of good practice via a 'one-stop shop' for initiatives and resources.

These strategic and system-wide recommendations underpin the Action Plan on Science and Engineering for the 21st Century [11] , whose implementation has been progressed and monitored by the Science and Engineering Education Advisory Group ( SEEAG).

The remit of SEEAG is to:

  • Steer the programme of work outlined in Science and Engineering 21 - An Action Plan for Education. Communicate and share information with the work stream lead partners throughout the process on cross-cutting issues such as quality assurance and sustainability, and consider the impacts of activities across the work streams.
  • Identify opportunities for collaboration and partnerships, alignment of activity and sharing of resources.
  • Support young people to make informed choices about further learning and careers in science.
  • Encourage good practice; support high achievement; value interdisciplinary learning; and acknowledge the need for a wider public appreciation of the value of science as a pillar of economic growth.
  • Ensure that the programme of work outlined in the Action Plan is undertaken within the strategic context defined by the Government Economic Strategy, Science for Scotland, Innovation Framework, Skills for Scotland, Curriculum for Excellence and associated policies and that the action plan complements activities being progressed in these areas.
  • Review the Action Plan as required and seek additional expert advice for example from HMIE, SQA and others as required.
  • Agree appropriate monitoring and evaluation measures.

This remit requires a strategic framework and context within which work and actions of the Advisory Group and lead partners can be understood. This is defined by the specific strategies arising from the School Science Summit and developments defined above, in particular Curriculum for Excellence ( CfE).

Much has happened in Scottish education since the School Science Summit in May 2009. CfE is being implemented in the broad general education phase Experiences and Outcomes, and new national qualifications are being developed in the senior phase. Additional frameworks and contexts are imposed by parallel work contained in recently-published reports that include:

The Donaldson Report on the future of teacher education in Scotland [12] ;

The Royal Society 'State of the Nation' report on Science and mathematics education, 5-14 [13] ; and

The Scottish Government report on delivering ambitions for post-16 education [14] .

The current climate of spending cuts requires more to be achieved with less, and this requires ambitious educational reforms to be implemented in creative and strategic ways that make much better use of declining resources. The challenges of improving science education in Scotland must therefore be addressed within a dynamic and fast-changing situation that is in many respects unrecognisable from that of the Science Summit of 2009. The work of the SEEAG described in this first report has therefore evolved towards creating an evidence-based strategic plan within which STEM education can be strongly developed in Scotland.

The work and recommendations of SEEAG between April 2010 and December 2011 in supporting the implementation of the Action Plan, whilst recognising recent developments, is the subject of this report of SEEAG. The report considers a wide range of issues around science education and engagement, identifies the research evidence about what works in improving science education and engagement, and draws conclusions and makes recommendations about ways forward. The detailed work and actions of the SEEAG and of its lead partners contribute to the attainment of these strategic goals. Both are key elements of this report.

The SEEAG Workstreams

The Action Plan sets out a work programme containing five workstreams developed around key themes raised by delegates at the School Science Summit:

1. Building capacity and expertise of teachers
Lead partner: Schools Directorate, Scottish Government
(Remit: To provide teachers in all sectors with professional support and development opportunities…to enable them to become more confident and effective in delivering science and technology curricula and the mathematical skills to support these)

2. Practical support for teachers and learners
Lead partner: Learning and Teaching Scotland ( LTS) - now Education Scotland
(Remit: To create a toolkit for teaching and learning that will exemplify CfE; provide practical guidance and support for teachers and learners including support for assessment and national qualifications; improve coherence and accessibility of high quality support material from partner organisations)

3. Increasing children and young people's engagement with, and understanding of, real life science, engineering and technology
Lead partner: Office of Chief Scientific Adviser ( OCSA)
(Remit: To establish new/strengthen existing links between schools and external partners to increase children and young people's engagement with, and understanding of 'real life' science, engineering and technology)

4. Further learning, training and employment
Lead partner: Skills Development Scotland
(Remit: Further learning, training and employment in STEM)

5. Improving the public knowledge, understanding and perception of science
Lead partner: OCSA
(Remit: Improving the public knowledge, understanding and perception of science including through the media and improving the international perception of Scotland's Science and Technology)

Workstreams 1 and 2 were merged early in SEEAG's work to reflect the large overlap in their aims and a shared focus around the professional development of teachers.

The above themes implicitly recognise that artificial distinctions are commonly drawn in practice between the formal education of young people in the fundamentals of science and their relevance to the real world; the training of professional scientist and technicians in the world of further and higher education; the essential role of STEM in world of work; and an improved understanding of benefits, risks and impacts of science and technology amongst the citizens of Scotland. In reality these are seamlessly interconnected. Scientifically literate young people are powerful ambassadors for science and technology within their own communities. They learn about science in the classroom, the outdoors, in the media and at science centres, and in their everyday lives. Science is all around them - it is about how the world works, in principle and in practice.

The Action Plan is quite simply about engaging more people more deeply and more effectively in science at whatever level, wherever they are, and in whatever way is most appropriate and effective. Throughout this report we will strive to make evident the connections in principle and practice between the above workstreams, and the resulting potential for practitioners to share scientific ideas and educational initiatives through networks, learning communities and partnerships, and their co-ordination at local and national levels.

The SEEAG work and report

This report gathers, integrates and presents the main recommendations and conclusions of the work undertaken within the five workstreams by the lead partners and sponsors. The individual workstream reports, prepared and developed through 2011, take the form of evidence-based frameworks and strategies within which the actions and outputs of the lead partners and the outcomes of the 12 meetings of the SEEAG may be presented and evaluated. The recommendations and conclusions of the individual workstream reports are founded on research evidence gathered by report authors, the feedback from a large number of stakeholders to a set of questions, and the responses and views of delegates expressed at workshops held during the SEEAG Conference held at the Glasgow Science Centre in June 2011. The report has also benefited from key work undertaken and reports contributed by the Deans of Science and Engineering Committee of the Scottish Universities, the Scottish Science Advisory Council ( SSAC) on science education in schools, and by Professor Jack Jackson on the Provision of support for Scottish teachers of STEM subjects.

This report is written for a wide audience: Scottish and Local Government, educational agencies, teachers, educators, parents, schools, colleges, universities, business and industry, learned and professional societies, science engagement organisations and the public at large.

The work of SEEAG was undertaken during and in parallel with the preparation of other recently published major education reports to Government that have a bearing on this report, including:

Donaldson G (2011) Teaching Scotland's Future, Report of a review of teacher education in Scotland. Scottish Government, January 2011 [12]

Science and mathematics education, 5-14: A 'state of the nation' report. The Royal Society, 2010 [13]

Putting learners at the centre: delivering our ambitions for post-16 education. Scottish Government Paper, September 2011 [14]

Cameron D (2011) Devolved School Management, Scottish Government, October 2011 [15]

McCormac G (2011) Advancing professionalism in teaching, Report of the review of teacher employment in Scotland. Scottish Government, September 2011 [16]

Science education: Enhancing Support for schools through collaboration. Scottish Science Advisory Council, January, 2012 [17]

Scottish Science and Engineering Education Action Plan, Teaching Excellence Initiative: Input from Deans of Science & Engineering. 2010 [18]

The work of the SEEAG builds on and often extends the outcomes and recommendations of these reports, and the SEEAG report interprets the recommendations and conclusions of these reports together with additional research evidence in a STEM context. Importantly, the SEEAG's work differs in having a specific STEM focus; this distinction is reflected in the report's recommendations.

Science and technology are in a constant state of change. Rapid progress in both fundamental principles and in practice leads to new insights and greater understanding, and new applications to - and impacts upon - the lives of people in Scotland. These advances affect they way we look at the world around us and the way we live. Many STEM teachers can become out of touch with these new advances and applications as they are immersed in the day-to-day business of teaching. This has a direct bearing on the nature and extent of both initial and continuing professional development needed by STEM teachers. Furthermore, science and engineering are practical, hands-on subjects; learners and teachers alike need to engage in active, practical, hands-on learning. This in turn imposes further important requirements on the nature of the teacher learning and professional development that are needed.

SEEAG stakeholder consultation analysis report

SEEAG and its workstream leaders undertook a stakeholder survey to establish a baseline of knowledge and gather sector-specific views on questions relating to the Science Action Plan. Forty-three out of over 200 stakeholders from a range of sectors responded. These sectors included further and higher education institutions, industry, local authorities, professional bodies, school support providers, Government and its agencies, science centres, museums and other public providers, research councils, science media and science engagement providers. The responses enabled the identification of five themes that ran across all workstreams to varying degrees. These were strategic overviews; linking academia and industry; supporting schools; guidance and career paths; and funding. Common and recurring messages and issues that emerged included:

  • Co-ordination and awareness of supporting activities locally, regionally and nationally
  • Resources and funding for more hands-on CPD, relevant to real-life and in support of new qualifications
  • Raising awareness of CfE and appropriate CPD in industry and universities
  • Facilities to support essential hands-on science learning
  • Improved guidance and awareness of STEM sectors and careers
  • Links between subject choices and career opportunities
  • Enthusing young people in science learning and STEM careers
  • Development of science skills and knowledge in the primary sector through review of initial teacher education
  • Negative impacts of short-term funding and its knock-on effects on partnership development
  • Ring-fencing of LA funding in relation to CPD, facilities and science engagement access.

These are all issues and themes that are addressed within the strategic framework and the workstream actions of the report. They ground both strategy and actions in the concerns of stakeholders captured in the survey, and help to define and reinforce the direction of the SEEAG's work through 2011 reported here. They also highlight the complex landscape of activity and support in science education and engagement as perceived by these stakeholders that is compounded by the ongoing process of radical educational reform and development of new national qualifications. A clear strategy and framework for development and delivery of a science action plan is essential if stakeholders are to make sense of this complex landscape; this strategy and framework forms a core component of the report.

Details of the survey and respondent recommendations and suggestions under workstream headings may be found at:

Educational reform - why it matters

Many countries are undertaking reform of their public education systems in order to ensure that their young people are able to take their place in the economies of the 21st century and at the same time to ensure that they retain a sense of their cultural identity in a time of rapidly increasing globalisation. The current system of free public education we have inherited and experienced, modelled in the interests and image of the industrial societies and economies of the 19th and 20th centuries, has generated winners and losers based largely on the criteria of academic achievement, standardised testing and a standardised curriculum. Educational reform requires us to think differently and more flexibly about the ways we nurture and develop the innate human capacity for curiosity, creativity and critical thinking ('higher order skills') and to ask whether our current educational system stunts, stimulates - or at the very least sustains - these capacities that young people require and that employers seek.

Why is educational reform important? A commitment to improving educational quality through radical reform is the current goal of many Governments. Because the pay-back on investment now lies many years in the future, the investment and commitment of Governments for the longer term often falls short of what is required. However, even relatively small improvements in educational standards can have large impacts on the economic, social and cultural well-being of nations that may offset and perhaps exceed the cost of effective educational reform . It is estimated that an increase of the average PISA scores of all OECD countries of 25 points over 20 years would increase OECD GDP by $115 trillion over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010 [19] . The educational gap between children in the USA and their counterparts in other OECD countries was worth an estimated $2.3 trillion in economic output (including hundreds of billions of dollars in unrealised economic gains) in 2008 [20] . This is why a commitment to educational and curricular reform in Scotland should be given the highest possible long-term priority by its Government. The long-term social and economic benefits of effective education reform are enormous. For this to be achieved, transformative change that is innovatively founded on successful models is particularly required in areas of economic and social exclusion. The benefits of tackling educational disadvantage and alienation, social division and exclusion and the resulting unrealised human and economic potential would be felt widely across society and at the same time lead to major longer-term savings.

The ambition and attainment of Scotland's most talented and best-performing young people must also be developed and extended across all fields of study. They represent Scotland's innovators and leaders of tomorrow. This goal will require special provision and opportunity within the comprehensive system, through the development of innovative and imaginative projects and creative partnerships, based on researched evidence of successful models. Investment in support for the educationally disadvantaged should be coupled with stretching of the educationally gifted.

Curriculum for Excellence - its wider impact on science education

Curriculum for Excellence ( CfE) is more than a radical reform of curriculum and assessment. It is arguably not a curriculum at all in the normal sense. It is at least as much about skills, pedagogy and context as about content, and incorporates additional values and capacities. CfE also recognises schools and teachers as the interpreters and developers of the curriculum rather than simply the deliverers. Its implementation is a process and not an event, and as such it will take a number of years for measurable evidence of its increasing impact to be gathered and demonstrated.

CfE creates a framework for improving science teaching and learning and provides rich contexts and opportunities for interdisciplinary and cross-curricular learning across the sciences and engineering. In doing so it encourages teachers as subject specialists to teach beyond the confines of their specialist knowledge in order to point out the connections between the science disciplines and across into other curricular areas, highlighting the real world relevance of science. This in turn generates an expectation that teachers will work with colleagues in other subjects, and challenges the capacity of teachers to respond to these opportunities. These changes will require a cultural change in the profession, particularly in the secondary sector, that must be recognised, articulated and supported.

This report addresses many of the challenges and opportunities arising in implementation of CfE as it affects the delivery of STEM education and engagement, and examines the ways in which STEM education may be supported and developed through initial teacher education, professional development and the development of new support structures and partnerships. The report also considers how young people's engagement with STEM may be increased, how the transitions to further learning, training and employment may be improved, and how the creative science culture of Scotland may be sustained and developed.


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