Science and Technology Division
FOR EVERY STUDENT
SHORTAGES OF SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS
AND SCIENCE EDUCATION
SCIENCE EDUCATION IN CANADA
The importance of science
and technology in society has grown enormously over the past two decades
and, in our increasingly technological world, these subjects now affect
most facets of our lives. Few aspects of society have not been radically
altered by changes in technology. Over the last 20 years, these have been
occurring at a particularly rapid pace, which will likely accelerate in
The Canadian economy is
strongly influenced by these scientific and technological advances. As
globalization becomes a reality, it has become clear that Canada must
remain in the forefront of technological innovation in the workplace in
order to become and to remain competitive. To do this, Canada must have
a scientifically and technologically literate workforce, trained both
to work with sophisticated equipment and to develop new technologies.
Science education, beginning at an early age, is essential if we are to
The importance of strengthening
Canadas educational system is increasingly recognized by politicians,
policy-makers and the general public. As stated in the May 1991 Speech
from the Throne, "Canadas ability to prosper in a global economy
will be determined by the level of Canadians educational achievement."(1)
As the next century approaches, the link between Canadians education
and their competitiveness becomes increasingly apparent.
There are, however, significant
problems with science education in Canada; not enough Canadians are choosing
to pursue careers in areas requiring scientific and technological training.
The resulting shortage of scientists and engineers, technologists and
technicians will soon become critical. At the same time, the average Canadian
displays an appalling lack of understanding of even the most basic scientific
concepts. This paper will examine the present state of science education
in Canada and look at how it can be improved.
At the end of 1989, Dr.
Edna Einsiedel, of the University of Calgary, conducted a survey to determine
Canadians basic scientific knowledge and their attitudes towards
science. The results of this survey were shocking. Nearly two-thirds of
the people questioned could not name a single Canadian scientist, while
over half did not know of any Canadian scientific achievements. Basic
scientific knowledge was not much more impressive; half the respondents
were unaware that the earth takes a year to go around the sun and nearly
half believed that boiling radioactive milk makes it safe to drink.(2)
Although the survey did
highlight a dismal lack of knowledge about science and technology, with
women scoring worse than men, it also indicated that most Canadians see
science as a positive force in their daily lives and believe it should
receive more support from government. The majority claimed to be very
interested in media stories about science and technology, especially on
This interest is, unfortunately, not apparent in younger Canadians, who
are at the age when decisions about careers in science and technology
are made. Furthermore, despite the apparent interest of some Canadians
in science, studies indicate that there are serious problems in Canadas
science education system.
In 1990, the Economic Council
of Canada published a Working Paper entitled Science Achievement in
Canadian Schools: National and International Comparisons. This paper
analyzed science education in Canada with the aim of improving the teaching
methods employed and the levels of knowledge attained.(4)
The report highlighted the
fact that the "essential characteristic of education in Canada"
is the "exclusive jurisdiction of the provinces over education, and
the inherent diversity which this creates ..."(5)
This makes it very difficult to obtain a coherent picture of science education
in this country. Nevertheless, the report outlined a number of important
In Canadas grade schools,
there are few similarities in the science curricula offered across the
country. This gradually changes in the higher grades, where programs differ
only slightly from province to province. At the elementary level, no specific
science training is required for the teachers but their degree of specialization
increases with the grade level. Finally, it is noted that female teachers
tend to dominate at the primary grade level while at the secondary school
level most of the teachers are male.(6)
These findings reinforce
many of the criticisms made of the Canadian education system. The fact
that teachers of the lower grades need have little specific science training
brings a danger that many children will lose interest in the subject at
a young age. Although the high proportion of women teachers at the primary
level can provide girls with role models, many of these women themselves
have rejected science and may communicate their dislike and fear of the
subject to their students. Finally, the lack of a common curriculum across
the country suggests that science is taken less seriously at this level
than at the secondary level. It is possible that this attitude can influence
students later decisions with regard to science programs.
When compared with students
of other countries, interestingly, Canadian students ranked high in science
knowledge at an elementary level; however, as the grades got higher our
performance worsened. At the senior level, Canada ranked near the bottom
of the 14 participating countries. There are, however, problems with studies
of different countries; groups of students examined for the study are
not always comparable. For example, in Hong Kong the students at the senior
secondary level are a select group, only a small proportion of whom are
enrolled in science courses.(7)
Comparisons between Canada
and other countries are also complicated by the fact that Canada comprises
ten provinces and two territories, so that there are twelve different
educational systems. The results of the comparative study indicated that
western provinces tend to have higher science achievement scores, followed
closely by Ontario. The lowest scores were in the eastern provinces. With
so many systems in place it is difficult to make a firm statement about
Canadas education system as a whole or to make effective changes
to improve the countrys standing.
FOR EVERY STUDENT
The Economic Council of
Canada study discussed above was carried out in 1990 but it had long been
recognized that there are faults in Canadas science education system.
In 1984 the Science Council published a report discussing, in broad terms,
the problems with the teaching of science in Canada and ways of solving
Entitled Science for
Every Student, the Science Council report was the result of a four-year
study into the science curriculum of every province and territory. The
study investigated past and present science education in Canada with the
aim of making recommendations for future directions.
The Science Council study
reaffirmed the importance of ensuring that every student possesses a basic
understanding of scientific and technological issues. It argued that "for
Canada to cope with social changes rooted in highly specialized technologies,
its citizens need the best general education possible an
education comprising not only the traditional basics of language and mathematics,
but also the new basics of our contemporary culture: science and
The report suggested that
to achieve this goal, a schools science curriculum should be devised
with four broad aims in mind:
to encourage full participation
in a technological society;
to enable further study
in science and technology;
to facilitate entry
to the world of work;
to promote the intellectual
and moral development of individuals.(9)
This report highlighted
the problem of the large gap between what science education aims to achieve
and what it actually accomplishes. In order to shrink that gap the Science
Council recommended that science education be made accessible to all students
and that women and high achievers be particularly encouraged to pursue
it. The science curriculum itself should present a more authentic view
of science with a greater emphasis on the connection between science and
technology and everyday life. Scientific ideas should be presented in
a Canadian context to heighten interest in the subject. Finally, above
all else, there should be a drive for high quality in science education.(10)
SHORTAGES OF SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS
Science for Every Student
was published in 1984 but little has changed in the intervening years,
despite the fact that science and technology are just as important today,
if not more so, to this countrys future ability to compete. A lack
of trained scientists and engineers could cause serious problems for the
Canadian economy. A study published in 1989 by the Natural Sciences and
Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) outlined Canadas
future need for scientist and engineers.
The study noted the decrease
in Canadas 18-24 year old age group. This decrease was predicted
to continue, reaching its nadir in 1997. Surprisingly, despite this drop
in university-aged people, there has been an increase in the number of
students enrolling for university degrees. Fewer students, however, are
choosing to pursue degrees in science and engineering. This, the report
argued, should be seen as a warning signal; it could easily lead to a
future drop in the supply of trained scientists and engineers.(11)
This foreseen drop in supply coincides with an increasing need in both
the industrial and university sectors for highly qualified scientists
and engineers. Assuming that the Canadian economy will continue to experience
growth over the next decade, the NSERC study argued that there will be
an increasing demand from the business sector for scientists and engineers
with postgraduate degrees. It is expected that there will also be increased
demand in the university sector for scientists and engineers with doctoral
degrees, particularly as current faculty members retire or die.(12)
The predicted increase in
demand for scientists and engineers, coinciding with a decrease in supply,
could cause serious problems for the Canadian economy over the next decade.
Although NSERC has programs in place to encourage and provide financial
assistance for students of science and engineering, it is recognized that
the process of education in Canada takes place over a 20-year period.
In order to ensure an adequate supply of highly qualified scientists and
engineers for the future, children must be encouraged early to study science.
This again places emphasis on improving science education throughout the
entire educational system.
NSERC highlighted one group
as deserving particular attention: women, who traditionally have not pursued
careers in science and engineering. This problem, and possible ways of
alleviating it, will be discussed in the next section.
AND SCIENCE EDUCATION
An increasing recognition
of the importance of science education has led to a closer examination
of the presence of women in the world of science. Although women represent
over 50% of the population and a continually growing proportion of the
workforce overall, the percentage of women employed in scientific fields
remains small. The growing recognition of a future shortage of scientist
makes it imperative to encourage women to consider these career paths.
First, however, it is necessary
to understand why women have traditionally shunned these fields. Although
many questions remain, a number of studies have pointed to certain factors.
Before schooling begins, most young girls are influenced by their parents
and by societal pressures away from scientific activities. Whether consciously
or not, girls are often encouraged to play with dolls, for example, rather
than with building blocks or toys like Lego. It is unclear how much this
early socialization affects womens future career choices but any
influence is often reinforced by school experience.(13)
As a female child progresses
through the school system, many factors affect her decision on whether
to pursue science courses. Lack of female role models, gender biases in
classroom conduct and curricular materials, and teachers low expectations
for girls can all discourage girls from studying mathematics and science.
If they decide to drop mathematics and science at an early age, it is
difficult for students to pursue these subjects later.
There are a number of ways
in which the obstacles to womens careers in science can be overcome.
It is vital that non-traditional areas be represented as feasible options
and receptive to women students. This must be done at all levels of education,
from high school, to university, to adult courses for mature students
returning to formal studies. A number of approaches are possible, including
career days and workshops to outline options to high school students,
summertime math and science career programs which might include laboratory
activities, participation in research projects and visits to job sites,
and visits by women enrolled in university science programs or pursuing
a scientific career.
Efforts must also be made
to make science programs more accessible to women. Bridging programs would
allow women to acquire the background needed to take science courses;
structures must be put in place to encourage women to enter and remain
in such courses. Women who already have degrees in science but have left
the field for any reason (for example, to take up family-related responsibilities)
should be able to re-enter the workforce with the assistance of specially
designed programs to help them review the latest developments in their
Academic policies free of
gender bias that allow for flexible programs, and distance education can
also help to make education accessible to women. Efforts should also be
made to ensure that class scheduling makes allowance for womens
responsibilities in raising a family. Financial assistance and scholarships
aimed at women entering or returning to science programs will encourage
women to pursue these studies. Finally, the atmosphere on the campus and
within the various faculties should be supportive of women who pursue
A number of programs already
in place aim at encouraging women to take up careers in science and engineering.
Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto, for example, has established
the Discover Engineering camp to encourage female high school students
to consider careers in these areas. By allowing the students to perform
experiments such as testing an airplane wing in an air tunnel, and by
inviting women engineers to discuss challenges in their fields, the program
aims to encourage a greater number of women to continue their science
studies at a university level.(15)
Other programs are in place at various universities but there is a need
for much more focus on grade school and high school students.
The programs described above
are good examples of first steps that should be taken to convince more
women to study science and engineering. Many such efforts must be put
in place if the final goal is to be achieved. Although factors that discourage
girls from studying science can be identified, it is much more difficult
to determine exactly what motivates girls to consider non-traditional
careers. Perhaps the single most important factor is the influence of
a role model. This suggests that, as more women choose careers in science,
others will be encouraged to follow their example.
There is little disagreement
about the existence of problems in science education in Canada; however
it is difficult to determine the best solution. A number of approaches
might prove useful.
A special effort must be
made to train teachers in methods of teaching science at all levels. Particularly
at the elementary school level, it is clear that not enough teachers have
a strong knowledge of or enthusiasm for science. More emphasis can be
placed upon science education in teachers colleges and programs
can be implemented to bring working scientists into direct contact with
teachers. By discussing new scientific ideas and suggesting methods for
introducing them into the classroom, scientists can greatly aid teachers
in communicating enthusiasm for science to the students. Many experts
believe that this type of close contact between scientists and teachers
is the key to improving science education.(16)
Despite the jurisdictional
problems that plague education reform in Canada, it should be possible
to work toward common reforms at a national level. The federal government,
in consultation with the 12 provincial and territorial governments, could
consider establishing a National Centre for Science Education to examine
science education in this country and suggest ways of improving it. By
consulting widely across the country and at different levels, this centre
could respond positively to the many challenges confronting science education
It is clear that improving
science education is crucial to the long-term health of the Canadian economy.
In a society where science and technology are pervasive, a knowledge of
and some facility with them is essential for all citizens. Science education
must begin with a firm base in primary school but it must continue into
secondary school, university and beyond. In this era of lifelong learning,
Canadians must be ready and able to adapt themselves to new skills and
technologies at many different points in their career; otherwise, they
will find it extremely difficult to compete in the global economy.
Connelly, F. Michael.
Ontario Science Education Report Card. 1987.
Council of Ontario Universities,
Committee on the Status of Women in Ontario Universities. Attracting
and Retaining Women Students for Science and Engineering. June 1988.
Crocker, Robert K. Science
Achievement in Canadian Schools: National and International Comparisons.
Economic Council of Canada, 1990.
Economic Council of Canada.
Employment in the Service Economy. 1991.
Natural Sciences and Engineering
Research Council. Canadas Future Requirements for Highly Qualified
Scientists and Engineers. May 1989.
People and Skills in the New Global Economy. Ontario, 1988.
Literacy A Basic Skill in Canadian Life." A background paper
for the 1990 National Forum of Science and Technology Advisory Councils.
Royal Society of Canada.
Realizing the Potential: A Strategy for University Research in Canada.
Science Council. Science
for Every Student. Report 36. April 1984.
Task Force on Mathematics
and Science Education. Towards an Achieving Society. Newfoundland,
Speech from the Throne to Open the Third Session Thirty-Fourth Parliament
of Canada, 13 May 1991.
Christine Tausig, "Science Survey Scores Low, Interest High,"
University Affairs, April 1990, p. 3.
Robert K. Crocker, Science Achievement in Canadian Schools: National
and International Comparisons, Economic Council of Canada, 1990.
Ibid., p. 51
Ibid., p. 52
Science Council of Canada, Science for Every Student, Ottawa, 1984, p.
Ibid., p. 10.
Ibid., p. 11.
Robert Kavanagh, "The Future Supply of Highly Qualified Engineers
and Scientists and the Role of NSERC," in Canadas Future Requirements
for Highly Qualified Scientists and Engineers, 1989, p. 174-175.
Ibid., p. 186.
Council of Ontario Universities, Attracting and Retaining Women Students
for Science and Engineering, Report from the Committee on the Status
of Women in Ontario Universities, June 1988, p. 1.
Ibid. p. 507.
"Scientific Summer Seduction," Globe and Mail (Toronto),
16 July 1991.
For further details on a program in place in the United States see "Scientists
Educate the Science Educators," Science, 24 May 1991, p. 1061-1062.