Canadian university students are not choosing careers in math, science, technology and engineering – even though they recognize that many future jobs will require precisely these skills. Almost 75 per cent of new jobs between 2009 and 2018 will be in highly skilled occupations. Policy makers should consider investing more in science literacy, in promoting the image of science, and in making math and science compulsory courses in all grades in high school, just as English is.
Without a clear vision of how to pique students' passion for science and math, Canada will not be able to compete against emerging economies such as China and India, where a career in these fields is seen as a route to socio-economic advancement.
Ironically, most Canadian students already recognize the value of science education; it's just that they are not attracted to these subjects, or so concludes a landmark study on science education conducted by Amgen Canada, a biotech company, and Let's Talk Science, a non-profit outreach organization. "By the end of high school, the vast majority of students are taking no science at all," notes the report, the first benchmark of science learning in Canada. Proportionately, a much larger percentage of Chinese university students choose to study science and math.
The reasons are complex. With education a provincial responsibility, Canada lacks a national vision or forum to promote excellence in the teaching of science. Subjects such as physics and chemistry are not always taught effectively in high school, while primary school teachers often don't have a science background. The image of a fusty scientist in a lab coat with an exploding beaker persists, despite the popularity of science shows such as CSI and The Big Bang Theory, which show the relevance of science.
In an era of technological innovation, so many careers require some knowledge in this area, including the skilled trades, and the mining, oil and gas, and health-care sectors. Wages in these occupations have also seen above-average growth in recent years.
Young people already know that when they drop Grade 11 math, they close the door to a career in medicine or engineering. But they may not realize they are also robbing themselves of a chance to understand how to fix an engine, think critically, solve problems and enhance their understanding of the world they live in.