Science of persuasion

06.01.2014
Five dedicated teachers with an enthusiasm for their subject have created a “researcher” programme at Drammen College of Further Education near Oslo. It now sends more pupils to Norway’s premier technical university than any other school in the country.
  • Tonje Pedersen and Bård Gudim (photos)
 

Careers advisers Trond Kårbø and Anne Vaagland Sørlien

Facilitators.
Careers advisers Trond Kårbø and Anne Vaagland Sørlien work to promote science subjects at Drammen College of Further Education. Openness, discussion groups, close collaboration with industry and class visits by engineers can boost interest, they maintain.

 

Forty per cent of the Drammen college’s pupils opt for science studies 
Conscious.
Forty per cent of the Drammen college’s pupils opt for science studies. From left: Jenny Røste, Jørgen Gustavsen, Lars Petter Johnsen, Viljar Monason Bjørge, Anne Line Hexeberg Henriksen and Jenny Torkveen are either in the researcher programme or taking normal science subjects.

 


When students from Drammen arrive today at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, they are told that “half the town” is already taking courses there.

For some reason, these youngsters have grasped that Norway’s shortage of engineers gives them the prospect of very good jobs and that science studies are fun.

That may be because of keen teachers with science MScs, or because industry has provided backing in the form of study trips to universities and very informative company visits.

In any event, the Drammen school has achieved what others only dream of doing. Students apply to study there because of its researcher specialisation.

While only 30 per cent of pupils at the college took science subjects before the new course offered teaching tailored for engineering studies, that proportion is now up to 40 per cent.

 

Pressure

“There’s a bit of pressure in our class,” says student Jenny Røste. “You don’t turn up for a test without having done the preparatory work.”

She is in the first batch of students to complete the three-year researcher specialisation at the Drammen college, and has been using science in her daily life from the start.

That has been accomplished through various chemistry experiments, demanding engineering studies and a physics-based philosophy about how the world functions.

The course was set up in the 2010-11 academic year to provide special expertise in various subjects – technology and research, mathematics, physics, chemistry and international English/biology.

A one-off grant of NOK 350 000 from Buskerud county council, which embraces Drammen, helped to set up the course, but it is now funded over the college’s regular budget.

The concept was hatched by three science teachers following the establishment of a new curriculum programme on technology and research learning (TOF) in Norway.

This subject forms the thread running through the specialisation, and means in practice five hours of “engineering subjects” a week – the high point of the course for its students.

They spend these hours building bridges in spaghetti, designing electric cars and constructing horizontal wind turbines. Their imaginations are the only restriction.

“It’s exciting to build and design things,” says Røste, who is now going to take extra subjects in order to qualify for veterinarian studies.

“When we were building a bridge, for instance, the first step was to design it on a computer. Then we assembled the spaghetti in triangles to make the structure as strong as possible.”

The researcher course suits pupils who liked science and maths in secondary school, and who want degrees and careers in such fields as environmental science, technology or medicine.

Not everyone wants to be an engineer, of course. Those who are planning to be doctors or veterinarians, for instance, switch to other specialised science-oriented programmes. So flexibility is very much the order of the day.

“I took the researcher course in my first year at college, but switched to more specialised science- related studies in the second year,” another student reports.

“The curriculum is fixed in the researcher programme, while the regular courses allowed me to choose between sciences and such subjects as language, sociology and economics.”

Like many other students, he felt it was important to be able to take international English. This and biology have accordingly been included as third-year options from 2013-14.

 

Wide range

Students engage in a wide range of research activities, from design and construction using 3D programmes to get the right angles, via lifestyle and blood sugar levels, to build electric cars through mechanical assembly, soldering and wiring.

“This specialisation is very popular,” reports careers adviser Anne Vaagland Sørlien. “You need good marks from secondary school to get in, because the number of places is limited.”

She has worked at the college since 1999, and is experiencing sweeping changes in her role. In her view, the school’s science commitment has enhanced its status.

At the same time, the job of the careers advisers and the college is to highlight the need for engineers in Norwegian society.

“As advisers, we’re responsible for two things: telling the students what jobs are needed, and ensuring that they’re not over-ambitious in their choices.

“They have to complete three years and pass the final exams, and we’ve got to help them make the right decisions so that they succeed in getting through.”

 

Practical

Careers advisers at the college work closely with the secondary schools in Buskerud, and visits by pupils from the latter provide practical insights into further education. They get to meet college students and join lessons on subjects of their choice.

The ablest final-year students in secondary school can now opt for a fast stream in maths and English, which allows them to take these subjects at first-year level in further education.

“This project has only just been launched, but we’re very confident that it’ll help to boost interest in science and languages,” says Sørlien.

“What an opportunity,” enthuses Røste, whose own class did not have such a chance. “I’d love to have done that. It’s no longer embarrassing to be clever, but more a source of pride.”

A school adviser used to provide guidance both on future job opportunities and on social welfare, but these aspects have now been separated in Buskerud’s further education colleges.

That means they can specialise much more, says Sørlien. “This job undoubtedly used to be more a form of semi-retirement. You now need expertise on careers or social welfare advice.

“As advisers, we work the whole time to expand the services we offer and to find attractive new solutions for the students. A lot’s happening in this field.”

First-year students at the Drammen college have a reception conversation with a careers adviser when the school year begin in order to clarify expectations and provide guidance.

“We ask them a bit about goals and ambitions, what they’re interested in and what job they’d like in the future,” explains Sørlien.

“If they say they want to work in TV, for instance, we ask them whether they know what the labour market is like in that field. Young people are usually well informed.”

Parents are also invited for an initial conversation together with their child and the contact teacher in order to review opportunities at the college and expectations of the student.

A local jobs fair is organised by the college every other year with industry in Buskerud and university representatives to inform students about available educational choices.

“The NTNU gets a full house,” says Trond Kårbø, the college’s other careers adviser. “Students flock to its stand and want to know everything about Trondheim and engineering studies.”

He also teaches first-year maths, and says he has to be sharp. “The students are intelligent and expect a high academic level. That makes the job particularly interesting and demanding.”

During their course, the students visit companies and the NTNU as well as gaining practical experience with potential employers. That teaches them how industry functions and who is of interest.

“This is an attractive group of students, and companies are keen to get to know them,” says Kårbø. “We’ve got Aker Subsea here in Drammen, for instance. It’s given us full support.”

 

Commitment

The students praise the commitment of their science teachers, who do not give up until the solutions to the many mysteries of physics and chemistry have been found.

“When we accomplish something we’ve worked on for a while, one of the teachers gets so enthusiastic that we have to stand and sing the national anthem,” claims Jenny Torkveen.

The other students laugh, and point to chemistry teacher Trond Olav Stensen. His classes are very popular, and he is pleased that the subject generates involvement.

“These pupils are particularly able,” he observes. “We’re lucky to get to work with them. Many achieve top marks in the most demanding subjects.”

But a lot of the students find physics offers them that little extra stimulation. They include Jørgen Gustavsen, a third-year student who aims to study at the NTNU.

“I’m undoubtedly fondest of physics. It’s about seeing how things hang together, and we get an expanded understanding. That’s very interesting.

“I think I’ll get into the NTNU, and know that I want to be an engineer. An oil company gave me a work experience job last year, which provided me with contacts and goals to pursue.”

Although many pupils in Norway drop science studies in further education college, the Drammen students believe that this is more about lack of self-confidence.

“Some people feel science is difficult, and don’t think they can manage it,” says Torkveen. “They believe it’s worse than it actually is.” Students taking the research specialisation find that a number of their fellows shift to other courses after the first year, she adds.

“There’s a pressure to study here, and we must keep up from the start. Although most assignments are tackled individually, we do collaborate – either via the web and Facebook or in groups.

“We’re good at helping each other to progress. Everyone knows that the only thing which matters is to do well, and to work steadily and proficiently throughout the year.” 

 

Jørgen Gustavsen is Buskerud’s chemical champion and now ready for the NTNU

Chemist.
Jørgen Gustavsen is Buskerud’s chemical champion and now ready for the NTNU.

 

Anne Line Hexeberg Henriksen and Viljar Monason Bjørge

Anthem.
A growing number of pupils at the Drammen college are opting for chemistry. When Anne Line Hexeberg Henriksen and Viljar Monason Bjørge get difficult experiments right, their teacher urges the whole class to stand and sing the national anthem.