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[BEIJING] A group of leading Chinese scientists has submitted a letter to the country's education authorities, urging an increase in science education among primary school pupils.

"Contrary to the national call to increase public scientific literacy and boost innovation, science education in primary schools is declining and experiencing serious problems," said former vice education minister and leading electronic engineer Wei Yu at a seminar held in Beijing last week (26 April).

Wei, now vice-chairman of China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), says that the letter, signed by more than ten top Chinese academics, was received by the education authorities on 1 April.

In 2001, science courses were withdrawn from grade one and two curriculums — for children aged seven and eight — when new curriculum guidelines were implemented, although at the time, European and US educators were looking at extending science education to five-year-old students.

"Science education for the higher primary grade students is no better," said Wei, adding that science is seen as less important than other 'auxiliary' subjects such as art and sport.

Behind the marginalisation of science education is the poor knowledge of education researchers and officials, Wei told SciDev.Net.

"Education is classified as a social discipline in China, so educators have poor knowledge and awareness of science. They simply think science is too difficult for lower-grade students younger than ten years old."

According to Wei, the petition also appeals for better training for science teachers and the establishment of education awards by the National Natural Science Foundation — which funds basic research in the natural sciences — to encourage scientists to popularise science among school children. It also calls for increased research and evaluation of science education.

With the support of CAST and the International Council for Science, Wei is also organising a scheme where education researchers work with scientists to design science education courses for lower grade students, a stage that she says is a "crucial period" in the development of scientific thinking.

Li Daguang, a professor of science communication at the Graduate University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, welcomes Wei's plans.

But he adds that less attention is paid to primary school science education also because many Chinese people consider science as a "useful" discipline rather than a way of rational thinking, and believe that this usefulness can be realised only when pupils are at university age.