A “humanising” process: Making science stimulating and relevant to young people

By Nathalie Guillaume (CEA)

In France, the number of students studying the sciences decreased by 23% between 1994 and 1999. And that tendency has not been reversed since. This is a worryingly familiar scenario that is repeated in a number of countries across Europe, where the appreciation for science learning – at both the secondary and university level – appears to be in decline. The general lack of interest among many young Europeans for studying sciences or pursuing a scientific career is a major challenge facing the nuclear industry. This disturbing trend will lead to a talent deficit and have a significant impact upon our future capacity to bring innovative solutions to the market place. This, in turn, could have a negative effect upon a European economy that thrives on innovation and new technology.

Many young people have been discouraged from studying the sciences, a situation that is mirrored in most European countries - as the last EU Eurobarometer survey on sciences confirmed. But why is this so? 67% of students in European schools who responded to the survey said that they thought that science lessons should be made more attractive. Furthermore, sciences are often used as a basis for identifying and selecting the best performing pupils, who then very rarely go on to pursue scientific careers.

The lack of interest in studying for degrees in certain scientific subjects seems to indicate that many young people do not perceive a career in the sciences to be an interesting or lucrative option. And yet, more and more young people - quite reasonably - want to participate in debates on key issues that involve making fundamental scientific and technological choices.

From our industry’s perspective, involving more young people in such a debate and showing them how the sciences are more “human” and relevant to every day life will help to correct the many myths, misunderstandings and misrepresentations that have led to the demonisation of nuclear technologies and will help to inspire more of them to pursue a scientific career path.

A reliable partner for government

Conscious of the challenge facing the nuclear industry, the Communications Division of the CEA has developed tailor-made products and organised a number of activities aimed at raising the interest level and appetite for the sciences among young people. The main goal of these initiatives is to make them more conscious of how vital the sciences and research are to the future of society and the global economy. Our first objective, one which has been achieved, was to establish a basis for co-operation with the French Education Ministry, so that the CEA would be included as a major partner in the government’s programme for action. Indeed, we have played a fundamental role in establishing the first specially adapted training and the post-graduate training programme for science teachers offered by one of the most important national teacher training establishments in France – the IUFM (Institute for the Training of Primary and Secondary Schools Teachers).

Another successful initiative has been the “science cafés” that are organised by the CEA in a number of secondary schools across France. The focus of these interactive discussion sessions is not so much what is on the drinks menu, but rather a number of key scientific issues chosen by teachers and pupils, such as radioactivity, the global climate, astrophysics and nuclear medicine. Pupils get to meet young researchers outside of the school context - in a less traditional, extra-curricular setting.

Teachers as opinion-leaders

Today, teachers are more and more seen as opinion-leaders for pupils and families, especially when it comes to providing career guidance and orientation. That is why we at the CEA have recently co-ordinated a project with the French Institution for the Information of Families and Orientation of Pupils (ONISEP). This project, called “Chercheurs Croqués,” is aimed at making teachers and pupils meet with researchers and discuss the many aspects involved in pursuing a career in science (in France and Belgium). A DVD and a magazine have been produced and distributed to 12,000 secondary schools in France. The project was financed by the European Union as part of an initiative of the FP6 (6th Framework Programme of the European Commission) called “Researchers in Europe, 2005”.

Choose disseminating partners

National and regional actions are also organised by the CEA’s Communications Division and by the communications teams at the nine CEA centres across France.

In schools, in laboratories, in bookshops and cafés, the CEA centres - even those working in the military research field - organize meetings, carry out research experiments and organise conferences, both during Science Week and throughout the year. This is a responsibility that all public research institutions are required to fulfil. However, there are 13 millions pupils and nearly one million teachers in France, so we must also rely on partners to help us organise activities and to disseminate information. We are also trying to reach certain regions where the CEA is not yet present, for example in the centre of France in cities like Poitiers and Clermont Ferrand. Some of our partners, like Fondation 93, are actively spreading the message and meeting young people on a regular basis in the eastern suburbs of Paris, many of them areas plagued by major social problems. We also organise experiments and teaching sessions in many secondary schools with experienced researchers.

New tools to “humanize” the sciences

The approach adopted differs according to the age group of the pupil. With the very young, it is a question of “charming” them, i.e. emphasising the appealing and fun aspects involved. With the older pupils, it’s more a question of guidance and advice. The key, whatever the age group, is to work hand-in-hand with the teachers and to make the sciences seem more human and relevant to young people.

Among the projects that we do with the youngest age group one that is particularly original. It involves the creation of a book (fictional) on the subject of the sun or on the global climate by a class of pupils of primary school age, together with the help of a CEA physician.

A fun and educational booklet for children aged between 10 and 14 years has also been published by the Playbac publishing house. It is all about energy and simple physics. IN addition, a special issue of a very successful daily magazine for youngsters aged between 14 and 18 years, called “l’Actu”, and another one called “Imagine ton future”, have also been published by the CEA – this time on the subject of the atom. Reactions to these publications have been very positive and new special issues are in the pipeline.

For teenagers and their teachers, we have printed new pedagogical teaching booklets (120, 000 copies). So far, booklets have already produced dealing with around 15 different subjects. A teaching folder on radioactivity has also been produced with the help of two NGOs devoted to scientific education. They contain, for example, playing cards on the CEA and on radioactivity, and a cartoon on radioactivity. Another folder on the subject of fusion has been produced by the CEA’s centre at Cadarache.

On the CEA’s website, pupils can now find possible subjects and information to do their homework and new scientific and teaching-based cartoons are available for them. To further “humanize” the sciences, a new website more adapted to young people’s needs has been created, broadcasting video clip portraits of young researchers and featuring animated clips and teaching folders. We intend to increase by 20% this year the number of visits to the educational part of our website. Most of these educational tools can be viewed or ordered on the CEA website at: www.cea.fr.

When we look at the results of studies carried out among pupils on the subject of choosing a scientific carrier, the most frequently received answer that sends out a negative message about the sciences (40%) is “I am not good enough in mathematics”. Teachers echo this finding and recognize that young people rarely cope with or recover from a failure in maths experienced in their early school career. The second most commonly given answer concerns the ability - or perceived difficulty - of balancing a normal private or family life with a scientific career. The CEA’s CEA Jeunes project aims to prove, with the help of teachers, that it is possible to manage the family and professional life conundrum, and that the life of a researcher is a perfectly normal one.

Although much remains to be done to make studying sciences (at schools and university) and pursuing a career in science appear a more relevant and attractive option to young people, the CEA - like organisations in other countries - is tackling the problem head-on. It is a strategic option for the nuclear industry and the nuclear sciences must take the initiative. The sings are that the tide could be turning at last.

More information can be found at the following web sites:


Nathalie Guillaume (CEA)

Home l Top l Disclaimer l Copyright l Webmaster