Economic and Social Research Council
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TV seeks to win children over to science, but are there other effective alternatives?

Research has found that a third of primary school children 'never' read science books or websites. However, the majority of 10 and 11-year-olds do some sort of science-related activity in their spare time, such as watching relevant TV programmes. Questions are now being asked about how effective television is in sparking young viewers' enthusiasm for science, or whether alternatives, such as scientists visiting schools, might do a better job.

The findings come from the ASPIRES project, based at King’s College London - a five-year study funded by the ESRC as part of its Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education (TISME). Using in-depth interviews and large-scale surveys, it investigated the science aspirations and career choices among 10-14 year olds. It also found that just under a quarter of children said they never do any science-related activities outside of school.

Dr Sai Pathmanathan, Science Education Consultant, says, "My own experience in schools shows that young people like to engage with science through a variety of methods, whether it's hands-on investigations, gaming or YouTube videos. But what's interesting is that even though some of them might not watch much science television, they often refer to something they've seen in a science programme. There's definitely something that sparks off an interest through television, it's just finding a way to sustain that spark that's important."

Over the years, children's television programmes featuring science have evolved. They range from the BBC's science-themed Tom Tom in the '60s - which featured Serendipity Dog, a canine robot that asked questions, to the corporation's current fast-paced offering, Absolute Genius with Dick and Dom - in which a comic duo feature the achievements of people such as Curie, Darwin, Fleming, Fox Talbot and Turing. Whilst the intention of the content remains the same - to interest youngsters in science and, hopefully, encourage some to take it up as a career – the style of the shows has changed considerably.

Bringing together views on what these changes mean for children's education and inspiration, Dr Pathmanathan is organising a discussion on science television as part of the ESRC's annual Festival of Social Science. Featuring a panel of children's science media producers and presenters – including former How2 presenter Gareth Jones and Fran Scott from Absolute Genius with Dick and Dom – the unique event also includes academic experts in the field, presenting media demonstrations and debating whether television is the best medium to engage young people with science.

The ASPIRES research also found that children who knew people, including parents, who had scientific or science-related jobs or even parents who just talked about scientific issues at home, were far more likely to engage with science and consider it as a career option. Their message is that families can play an important role in shaping children's view of science. But so too can TV programmes, visits by scientists to schools, demonstrations and hands-on experimentation and trips to science-based organisations. 

Commenting on children's media in general, the director of The Children’s Media Foundation Greg Childs says, "It has a powerful role to play in how our kids become the future. Diversity and quality really matter, as does ensuring that content reflects their lives and tells their stories, if we expect them to grow up as engaged citizens."

Further information

ESRC Press Office

Notes for editors

  1. Event: Children's Science Television: then and now
    Location: V&A Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London, E2 9PA 
    Date: 7 November 2014, 15.00-17.30 
    Event is free, though booking via Eventbrite is required.
  2. ASPIRES final report is entitled ASPIRES: Young people's science and career aspirations, aged 10-14 (PDF on external website). It was published in 2013 by King's College London, Department of Education and Professional Studies.
  3. The 12th annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 1-8 November 2014 with over 200 free events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Festival provides an opportunity for anyone to meet with some of the country's leading social scientists and discover, discuss and debate the role that research plays in everyday life. With a whole range of creative and engaging events there’s something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. See the full programme of events and join the discussion on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK's future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 the ESRC celebrates its 50th anniversary.


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