Fewer high school students are choosing to specialize in mathematics, chemistry, and physics. Nevertheless, 8 out of 10 young people emphasize the importance of thesesubjects for society. Can we encourage them to choose education based on reason rather than mere interest? is it coercion or incentives that are necessary? Four individuals deeply invested in science have diverse opinions on this matter.
Text: Anne-Marie Korseberg Stokke
Photo: Adrian Nielsen
"During my upbringing in the countryside of Sandnes, there wasn't much else to do but tinker, experiment, and fix things. Later, we combined mechanical and digital aspects by programming A/D converters with microcomputers. You could say it was a practical approach to science!" says Shahzad Rana.
From left: Camilla Stoltenberg, Shahzad Rana, Vibeke Fængsrud, and Morten Dæhlen discuss the challenges related to declining recruitment to science-subjects at Forskningsparken's Open Park in August 2023.
The former Technology Director of Microsoft Norway sat alongside three other brilliant minds on the podium at Open Park in Forskningsparken, discussing why an increasing number of young individuals are not choosing science subjects in high school. Rana began programming in his teenage years purely for the fun of it.
"When I started programming at the age of 13, it was all about having a good time. We didn't care about anything else. Who would have thought it would become so relevant?"
Rana emphasizes that technology and science must feel meaningful to young people and wishes for more interaction between the business world and schools.
"Our drive to solve problems is in our DNA. We want to contribute to creating something bigger than ourselves! I wish there was more interaction between the business world and schools so we could showcase all the cool applications of these subjects. Let the business world take part in holding the lectures – ignite enthusiasm!"
"WE WON'T INCREASE science ENTHUSIASTS AS LONG AS WE'RE DOING WELL, AND AS LONG AS WE DON'T DARE TO IMPLEMENT DRAMATIC REFORMS."
Requires Drastic Change
Morten Dæhlen, Head of dScience – Center for Data and Computational Science at UiO, acknowledges the enthusiasm and work ethic of science students at the University of Oslo. However, he is still concerned about enrolment.
Morten Dæhlen, head of dScience, suggests changes to Norway's education system.
"It's commendable to say 'follow your heart,' and I've said it to my children. However, as a society, we need to exert some control and make some decisions because we need more of one type of knowledge than another. We may need to make some fairly drastic changes. Could we, for example, remove the tenth school year and allocate those resources to reducing 'exclusion' and focus more on technology and science skills in middle school? Limiting educational choices for future generations has also been proposed. This needs to be looked at and investigated, but we are also dependent on political willingness to implement these measures," he says.
Dæhlen also pointed to research implying that interest in studying science and technology decreases as a country becomes wealthier.
"We probably won't increase the proportion of science and technology enthusiasts as long as we're doing well, and as long as we don't dare to establish reforms that will take 15-20 years to implement."
"I REALIZED THAT MATH DOESN'T DISTINGUISH BETWEEN SMART AND DUMB; IT DISTINGUISHES BETWEEN THOSE WITH AND WITHOUT DISCIPLINE."
Vibeke G. Fængsrud
Discipline trumps talent
Vibeke G. Fængsrud, CEO of House of Math, is passionate about setting high standards for both ourselves and young people. She recounts how she struggled during her youth and failed math in high school. Nevertheless, she chose to learn mathematics on her own, became a teacher, and started her own company for private math tutoring, which has now become the ed-tech company houseofmath.com. She wants to give us a little wake-up call:
"I realized that math doesn't distinguish between smart and dumb; it distinguishes between those with and without discipline. As a nation, we've become 'fat and lazy,' where everything sorts itself out no matter what, and it's perfectly acceptable to be bad at something! We all need to be very aware of our responsibility when we talk about mathematics and the notion that, 'no one in our family is good at math.' That's not good communication.”
"No one is motivated 100% of the time, and the key to success lies in discipline and work ethic. We need to be brave enough to discuss this more in both schools and at home," says Fængsrud.
Vibeke G. Fængsrud founded House of Math in 2006 and has helped thousands of Norwegian students and nearly 2 million people globally improve their math skills.
The fourth panellist, Camilla Stoltenberg, wishes for a school system that doesn't close the doors too early and can therefore catch students who fall behind, much like Vibeke G. Fængsrud did. She agrees that hard work is necessary but also emphasizes the importance of accomplishment in her proposed solutions.
"Even those without a great talent for it need to learn math. Just as we need physical activity for everyone alongside top-level sports, everyone needs to experience some form of math accomplishment based on their abilities," says Stoltenberg.
"WE NEED MANY MORE TO EXPERIENCE SUCCESS AND RECEIVE NEW OPPORTUNITIES THROUGHOUT THEIR SCHOOLING."
Stoltenberg chaired a committee in 2017 tasked with examining gender differences in academic performance and found that girls outperformed boys in almost all subjects. One of the proposals from the committee was to place greater importance on math and science grades in high school admissions. This would benefit boys because gender differences in these subjects are much smaller than in subjects like languages and practical arts.
"We've become better at developing talents early on, but there are many who don't discover their talent until a little later. By then, it might be too late. Opportunities dwindle, and you experience failure along the way. That's why assessments that have a certain importance should come later, after 12-13 years, not after 10. Many more need to experience success and new opportunities throughout their schooling," Stoltenberg concludes.
Camilla Stoltenberg (left) reminds us that changes constantly occur in the educational system, which both private companies, the public sector, and businesses should engage in.
- The number of high school students taking advanced science courses (FY2, R2, and S2) has decreased by 10% in two years (from 2020/21 to 2022/23, adjusted for the overall decline in students).
- Only foreign languages have a higher percentage of students who DISLIKE the subject than mathematics (29% and 25% respectively).
- 8 out of 10 students believe that "Everyone should learn science in school."
- 8 out of 10 students believe that "it is important for them to do well in science."
- 8 out of 10 students believe that "Natural science and technology are important for society."
Norwegian Education Agency, statistics for subject choices in upper secondary school
Close to science. National strategy for science in kindergarten and basic education (2015–2019)
NOU 2019: 3, New chances – better learning — Gender differences in school performance and education courses