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Chemistry International
Vol. 24, No. 1
January 2002


Science and the Public: Learning for the Future

What hinders the public from appreciating science more? Is the way that science is taught today helping or making it harder for young people to evaluate science-based issues?

by John Johnston

In January 2000, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) set out to address these important questions. The Society put in place a two-year initiative–Science and the Public–to take a careful look at the schools and colleges.

RSC designed the initiative to bring about collaboration among scientific societies and other agencies, with the ultimate goal of promoting a long-term strategy for highlighting the role of science in everyday life.

Project leaders aimed to accomplish the following:

  • to find new ways of providing young people with the background information and confidence to evaluate science-based issues that are affecting society;
  • to consider how best to provide continuing professional development opportunities for teachers to achieve the above objective; and
  • to provide support for adults who go into schools to support teachers.

Initially, the RSC developed a range of evaluation criteria to help measure the effectiveness of current activities in promoting science to the public–in this case prehigher education–in as objective a way as possible. By drawing on these criteria and examples of successful public outreach activities and curriculum resources, the RSC sought to concentrate efforts on supporting those activities that are proved to work, and to sustain a long-term program of activities with common messages about the role of science.

Finding Activities That Work
The evaluation criteria needed to be workable in real-life situations. Three general measures to help target specific student activities have been used:

  • Objective feedback (from evaluations), produced by organizations creating the initiatives, on the successes and failures of initiatives.
  • Worldwide published sociological and psychological research on the perception of science and scientists (5-19 year olds as well as the general public) supported by unpublished surveys from learned societies within the United Kingdom.
  • Theories on the nature of learning–considering students' cognitive development at different ages (preschool to post-16). For example, the project took into consideration issues such as the ability to learn abstract theories as well as gender differences in learning.

Key findings
A number of key issues were identified as a result of the research. The following is a summary of some of the main issues.

  • Aside from monitoring, very little independent evaluation of projects and activities exists.
  • A lack of coordination has created some duplication among a large number of diverse projects and resources available to schools and colleges.
  • The majority of resources are linked to mandatory parts of the curriculum.
  • Let them talk! Discussion activities are important to students.
  • There is a dearth of resources covering science and societal issues available at the correct level for use in schools and colleges.
  • Any materials should provide more than information. Teachers need help developing strategies for preparing students to deal with controversial science and society issues that require evaluation of data.

The study highlights the need to develop a consensus approach with other learned societies, industry, and government agencies that are involved in science and society issues. It is critical to take the project forward across as many fronts as possible in science engineering and technology. The RSC hopes that a consensus approach will give the project more impact

The full report was published by the RSC in May 2001. To request a copy of the report or if you would like more information about the project, contact John Johnston, Manager, Education Communications, Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BA (tel: +44 020-7437 8656; e-mail: [email protected]).

John Johnston is manager of education communications for the Royal Society of Chemistry in London, United Kingdom.

The report can be downloaded from the RSC website at



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