School science held back by battle of the sexes

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The Independent Online

Boys want their science lessons to be about weapons of mass destruction and the effect of chemical weapons on the human body while girls prefer to learn about how to deal with anorexia or bulimia or the significance of their dreams.

The stark contrast in what pupils look for from science has prompted researchers to call for curriculum planners to consider drafting separate syllabuses for each sex. The findings emerge in a study of what 15-year-olds want from science lessons conducted by Leeds University, published today.

"The responses of the boys reflect strong interest in destructive technologies and events," say the researchers. Boys opted for alternative therapies as their most dreaded topic. Girls, by contrast, would prefer to learn about their own bodies. They wanted to know how to deal with eating disorders and they were also interested in how to beat cancer and what to do to keep fit, leaving teachers with a daunting prospect for teaching a mixed-gender class.

There was, though, some measure of agreement on what they least wanted to learn about. Both sexes were equally turned off by the thought of studying the benefits and possible hazards of modern farming methods. Neither wanted to study "famous scientists and their lives".

The findings come from a study by the Centre for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Leeds, which aimed to find out how science could be made more popular. It follows years of decline in take-up of the subject at GCSE and A-level. Last summer the number of pupils taking a science GCSE fell by 8,000. While A-level entries rose overall by nearly 85,000 (12.1 per cent) between 1991 and 2005, entries in physics dropped by 35.2 per cent and chemistry by 12.6 per cent.

The researchers, who contacted 1,200 students in England, say most pupils did not like school science as much as other subjects. But contrary to public perception, they said they did not find GCSE science difficult.

A significant minority of students believed environmental problems were "exaggerated", "the cause of too much anxiety" and "best left to the experts".

The researchers said that the "persistence of gender differentials" in what pupils wanted to study could be described as "disappointing" in view of the millions ploughed into ensuring equity of access.

They said the question of separate lesson plans for each sex might have to be considered if the Government and curriculum planners really wanted to reverse the decline in take-up of the sciences at GCSE and A-level.

Boys like ...

* Explosive chemicals.

* How it feels to be weightless in space.

* How the atom bomb functions.

* Biological and chemical weapons and what they do to the human body.

* Black holes and other spectacular objects in outer space.

* How meteors, comets or asteroids can cause disasters on earth.

* The possibility of life outside earth.

* How computers work.

* The effects of strong electric shocks and lightning on the human body.

* Brutal, dangerous and threatening animals.

Girls like ...

* Why we dream and what it means.

* Cancer, what we know and how can we treat it.

* How to perform first aid and use basic medical equipment.

* How to exercise to keep the body fit.

* How we can protect ourselves against sexually transmitted diseases.

* What we know about HIV/Aids and how to control it.

* Life and death and the human soul.

* Biological and human aspects of abortion.

* Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.

* How alcohol might affect the body.

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