Overhauling the teaching of science in Norway;building a culture of experiential learning and cutting edge science through extracurricular courses, teacher training and policy shift
Despite considerable economic resources, Norway ranks below France and Germany in science education. As one of the first masters students to work in gene technology in Norway, Hanne Finstad realized that you learn science by doing. Every scientist—like every social entrepreneur—had a moment that sparked his or her passion. Through Forskerfabrikken (Scientist Factory) Hanne is creating opportunities for as many kids to have as many moments of inspiration in science. Beginning in Norway, lagging behind Western Europe and Scandinavian neighbors of Sweden and Denmark, Hanne is building a civil society movement to change the way science is taught and perceived.
Hanne is creating a new generation of scientists, a culture of critical thinking, and broadening intellectual curiosity through a multi-pronged strategy to integrate in-depth, experiential science into classrooms. Hanne is operating on the realization that students must actively participate in science to understand it. Hanne’s company, Forskerfabrikken, offers inexpensive two-hour science courses after school to “train young brains,” enrich and speed learning, and position science as something fun and interesting. A corps of specialized teachers is drawn from scientific researchers and engineers to inspire, teach, and engage students around experiential learning.
Hanne is integrating this experiential approach into curriculum, offering modules for teacher lessons, textbooks, and extensive teacher training, which has raised test scores as well as offer consulting for schools to determine how to improve their equipment and build centers for science. Her work is building a new social landscape for science, based on an understanding of how people learn, and transforming science education into something compelling and accessible to all.
Ineffective teaching does not create a citizenry of practical, curious scientists. Schools in Norway teach almost entirely theoretical science. Courses in science, from primary school to high school, revolve around reading about scientific ideas and then writing about them. This rote memorization is an ineffective method for learning about the abstract ideas that underlie all scientific study—“conceptual ideas are tough for young brains” without seeing them in action. Also, Norway does not have a culture of school extracurriculars—after school activities are not provided by school systems, are expensive, and are rarely academic in nature. There is little to supplement an education outside of the school walls. Norway is somewhat notoriously behind even other Scandinavian countries in terms of science education, and the long-term impact is clear in terms of performance and interest. Chemistry has the lowest recruitment of any college subject in Norway.
While there are many teachers who are gifted at teaching, many lack the practical knowledge and experience. Teachers in Norway are not required to specialize in the subjects they teach for any age range of students. Below college level, teachers are not required to have taken any courses beyond the level they teach. For example, 70 percent of tenth grade science teachers in Norway have not studied science past the tenth grade themselves. Moreover, teaching method textbooks rarely enter classrooms and science training for teachers has remained the same for roughly 30 years. Recently, Norway teacher colleges have added a fifth year of specialized training for teachers—this is an ample opportunity to reform education pedagogy in the sciences.
Even passionate science teachers struggle with dated equipment, texts, and lack of institutional commitment. Schools have extremely poor facilities for science and are not built to accommodate an experiment-based style of science education. Science books in Norway tend to cover developments and discovery up to roughly 1970, and talk in broad strokes for younger students rather than delving into details—neglecting the cutting edge science that is most relevant and compelling to young minds. For example, children can understand atoms at a young age, yet they are taught a simplified course work covering substances—a lost opportunity.
Hanne, a cancer researcher and biochemist, created Forskerfabrikken to fill the gap in Norwegian science education and provide the experiment-based education that makes science come alive. She has crafted a strategy that targets young people after school hours, in schools, and the larger education system to change the culture of science; intervening with children, young people, the academic system and the media to create new ways of thinking of human potential and dramatically expand passion in science. Her courses, designed to last between two to three hours and offered after school hours, are made up of 70 percent practical activities, with 30 percent focused on theory students see in action around the themes of chemistry, biology, and physics. Co-designed and taught by practicing scientists (Ph.D. students and experts) in working science labs at universities (or approximations in other spaces) the courses teach specific concepts such as atoms and gases through engaging story-based courses on “alien slime” or DNA sleuthing. Students wear lab coats, learn the scientific method, and practice the technical skills of science including safety and measurement. They are also provided with experiments and supplies to do their own projects at home. Hanne hopes to make it as natural for children to do science after school as sports.
Hanne realized that many of her scientific colleagues pointed to a time in their youth—roughly at age 8 or 10—when their interest in science was sparked. With Forskerfabrikken, she seeks to replicate those experiences to “open up minds to the invisible world.” Initially begun with a focus on that age group, Hanne has since expanded her offerings to include longer courses for high school age kids, shorter courses for children in the first through fourth grades (ages 6 to 8), and weekend activities for families, with everything from “bug clubs” to magnetism to ice cream making. Her primary one-off courses are offered on a paid basis to students after school. She has recently been expanding her work to be available to children of all socioeconomic backgrounds, incorporating courses in the “leisure time clubs” available to low-income students, the “open school” which provides afterschool care for students with working parents, and providing general discounts. She is also partnering with schools to provide courses to immigrant children from conservative religious backgrounds who may not be allowed out for traditional activities. Beginning with 441 students in her courses in 2008, she has doubled the number each year and is on track for 1,600 students in 2010.
Hanne is building from her free-standing extracurricular courses to overhaul science education within the system. A for-profit company, she is focusing heavily on teacher training to provide the skills, specialized learning, and tools and ideas to offer vastly more students an active, experiment-based science education. Several thousand teachers have gone through her program—roughly 3,000 teachers in Oslo and Bergen, with collaborations with teachers unions. Hanne’s efforts have helped to overhaul new science training for teachers—colleges now require an additional year of specialized study, from four years to five. Hanne’s teacher courses, her primary revenue source for Forskerfabrikken, strengthen the knowledge foundation, update teachers on the most up to date science, and guide them through the experiments that illustrate the concepts they teach. The results are promising: Teachers who underwent Hanne’s training in 2006 achieved higher results in Oslo testing. Another study followed students for three years, from second grade through fifth grade, using Hanne’s experiments and curricula. Out of 100 schools, the class was mediocre at best, ranking 50th out of 100 before the first year taught by Hanne’s methods. By the third year, the class ranked in the top 10 percentile (9th out of 100) science—one of the best schools in all of Oslo. Currently, she is engaged in a two-year contract which has trained 30 percent of all teachers in Oslo, with plans for the entire school system.
Hanne is working to overhaul science education infrastructure and alter society’s perception of science as removed from cultural life, emphasizing the contribution of science in all areas of society. Coupled with her teacher trainings and course offerings, she works with schools to conduct an “inventory” of their facilities and equipment, and makes recommendations for what they need to change/purchase to have a fully developed science department. Hanne has overhauled 85 schools through this process. Several municipalities have requested a full package, including courses for the first through seventh grades, planned experiments, teacher training, and facility inventory. Hanne is also working to get science accepted as part of the government investment in cultural activities. To further integrate her work into existing curriculum and teaching, Hanne has authored a science textbook for eighth to tenth grades, which integrates the experiments and active learning that is the basis of Forskerfabrikken. The text has 25 percent market share in Norway. Hanne’s board is exploring expansion in Denmark and Sweden through a franchise model.
Hanne has been working with a professor specializing in how brains learn to help hone her techniques. In all elements of her strategy she has emphasized the importance of specificity. Hanne feels that children’s brain development and interest is enriched by learning science in an in-depth way at an early age—for example, learning atoms rather than simple substances (solid, liquid, and gas) kick-starts understanding. Currently, curriculum is slow moving; children do not learn about anything on a microscopic level until roughly age 15. She is adamant that “You can teach eight- year-olds biochemistry.” Hanne has structured her extracurricular courses and teacher training to incorporate more specific and cutting edge science to children at an early age.
Hanne’s father, a geologist, helped spark her love for science when he gave her a telescope as a child. Together they explored the natural world on hiking expeditions and trips to his science lab. An athlete, Hanne was initially drawn to studying nutrition but then moved to biochemistry. During her studies, she supported herself by teaching science to teenagers. After earning her Ph.D., Hanne became a cancer researcher. At 22 she was an outlier in the scientific field in Norway—one of the first students in the country to focus on gene technology. She became obsessed by the question, “Why doesn’t everyone love science as much as I do?” The answer became clearer once she began to see the dismal and dry curricula on offer. Hanne was struck by the gap between what was in the lab and what was communicated in coursework or the media.
Leaving the lab behind, Hanne began to work as a science writer and journalist, creating her own small company as a free-lancer. She drew from a history of small entrepreneurial ventures, such as a woodcutting business as a teen. Writing for a women’s magazine, she was one of the only contributors with a scientific background, taking articles from such publications as The Lancet and explaining findings and implications in an easily digestible way. She honed her skills to engage people with science, and found communicating about science as exciting as the science. As an author, she interviewed scientists about why they loved their work, and what inspired them in the scientific field. Hanne began writing a column about fun science activities for a children’s magazine. She was inspired by the dynamic science museums in New York and San Francisco, but felt they offered a static learning experience. Hanne began brewing the idea of a fluid and continuous science education that would become Forskerfabrikken.