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Lack of math, science skills hurting Canadian job prospects

For all the money spent on education, students aren’t opting for courses that would help their future careers

In theory, science is the most interesting topic in the world. So why is it that so many of us drop high school science the minute we get the chance?

EDSS physics teacher Mark Carlin says that high-level science courses require a level of discipline that many students don’t have.[Will Sloan / The Observer]
EDSS physics teacher Mark Carlin says that high-level science courses require a level of discipline that many students don’t have. [Will Sloan / The Observer]
“There’s a difference between a topic and a career,” says Elmira District Secondary School physics teacher Mark Carlin. “You can go, ‘Gee, the Large Hadron Collider…’ or, ‘Stephen Hawking, black holes, wow…’ That’s great, but if you start to tell them, ‘Well, here’s the math that you need to understand …’ the eyes start to glaze over.”

A new study released October 8 by Let’s Talk Science and Amgen Canada suggests that more eyes are glazing over than ever. While 70 per cent of Canada’s top jobs require senior-level science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses, fewer than 50 per cent of Canadian high school students now graduate Grade 12 with these credits.

Each year, Canada spends $50 billion on education from kindergarten to the end of high school, but the report posits that “Canada’s economic well-being, quality of life, and ability to remain competitive with peer countries is put at risk” should these declining trends continue.

The report warns about costs to Canada of dropping out of high school science: a depleted talent pool; lost job options and future earnings (people with science credits earn an average 26 per cent more than those without); and alleged “financial costs to students, parents, tax payers and high schools” when students retake courses (“not only does it cost millions, but it delays students’ postsecondary plans.”)

At EDSS, however, Carlin and chemistry teacher Brian Carter say their numbers of science-trained graduates are not out of the ordinary – they’ve just always been modest. Of the 40 or 50 students who graduate with physics each year, Carlin estimates three or four will go on to engineering in university. From there, the challenges get greater.

“I’ve seen the articles, and on the professional groups that I follow online, they’re always bemoaning the fact that students are not choosing science and technology,” said Carlin. “I don’t see that so much, but it seems that it starts to hit the bump in the road at the post-secondary.

“It’s hard to generalize, but it seems like kids aren’t up for the focus that science requires – there’s so much distraction and multitasking. In science, you have to kind of drill down and drill down, and you have to have discipline. At the risk of sounding like an old geezer – ‘Ah, kids these days’ – it just seems like it’s part of the culture. The culture’s becoming more and more broad and diffuse. Science requires a lot of intensity and focus into something.”

There are other difficulties, too.

Carter also sees a changing workforce environment. “The jobs are so technical these days, you have to have a very specific skill set to fill them. … Nowadays, kids want out of [high school] in four years, and they want to finish university in four, and to become a specialist in a science field, you have to be in school a lot longer than that if you’re willing to focus on that.

“I think a lot of the time, it seems to me that people are more interested in getting in the work field faster. Even though you might end up with a greater long-term reward, the short-term reward – the paycheque, and the job right away – seems to be more interesting to them than the long-term sweat and the bigger goal of being a more specialized scientist.”

Even if kids wanted that kind of education, Carter and Carlin note that the cost of education has risen to make extensive graduate studies unviable for many students. Furthermore, as kids enter a more competitive workforce, science education may be more essential for the application for the job.

“I found out from my daughter who did pharmacy that she had to take physics, which really surprised me,” said Carlin. “I would have thought chemistry, maybe. But the other factor is, some of these professions want to weed kids. They know that math and physics and biology are difficult, so they say, ‘Go take Grade 12 high school physics, and then come and see us.’

“They’ll say, ‘Give us your grade, give us your class standing.’ If the kid comes back and says, ‘Well, I was third out of 50 kids,’ then, ‘Okay, we’ll take you.’ They may never see physics again.”

There remains a paradox: Even though the Let’s Talk Science report shows that high school science graduates are declining, post-secondary science courses are as competitive and prestigious as ever.

“They’re still coveted,” says Carlin.“I mean, you try to get into engineering in Waterloo … they’re probably having no trouble filling those spots.”

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