Top scientist calls for change to get students interested in science and maths
By science and technology reporter Jake Sturmer Updated Sat Jul 27, 2013 8:03am AEST
No matter how you are reading this story, you can thank science.
Whether it is the transmission of data over the internet or just the pixels on the screen, a combination of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is delivering it.
The problem is that in Australia, the number of students taking science and mathematics subjects is dwindling – and has been for decades.
Next week, in a speech to the National Press Club, Australia’s chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb will call for urgent changes in the way STEM subjects are taught in Australia.
“I’d go all the way back to primary school, encouraging more science taught so it’s recognisable as science,” Professor Chubb told the ABC ahead of the speech.
“[It’s about] making sure it was taught in a very attractive and inspirational way.
“The practice of science is a wonderful thing to be engaged in – the adrenaline rush you get when you discover something or see and understand something for the first time.”
For many, life’s questions can be solved with a quick visit to their favourite search engine – but Professor Chubb argues we cannot take science for granted.
“We’ve got to worry about the future,” he said.
“We might need to do something quite different in five, 10… years time.
“When we think about public health issues, when we think about security issues, when we think of all the things that could be impacting on us in different ways… we need to be preparing the people now to accommodate those changes… or even hopefully solve some of them.”
Australia’s year 10 students rank 13th internationally in mathematics and seventh in science.
A recent report from the Australian Council of Learned Academies, comparing Australian STEM education to the rest of the world, found the situation was good but not great.
“Australia has travelled fairly well until now, but there are holes in capacity and performance,” the report said.
“Further, many other countries are improving STEM provision, participation and performance more rapidly than us.”
A few weeks ago, a survey from the Australian Academy of Science found more than 40 per cent of Australians do not know how long it takes the Earth to travel around the sun.
School charter is to make science and maths more engaging
But schools like the Australian Science and Mathematics School in Adelaide are trying to address the decline in science literacy.
The specialist school takes students from years 10 to 12.
Its principal Susan Hyde says around 90 per cent of students went to university and 75 to 85 per cent of those opted for a STEM pathway.
“What the school is trying to do is show other schools – and we do have a charter to do this – how they can make science and maths more engaging,” she said.
Young people seem to be turning away from the study of science and maths… and [one] of the most prominent reasons is that they find it boring and too hard
Susan Hyde, principal of Adelaide’s Australian Science and Mathematics School
“Young people seem to be turning away from the study of science and maths… and [one] of the most prominent reasons is that they find it boring and too hard.
“In this day and age with the amount of opportunities for young people to learn anywhere anytime – if you’re not interested and it’s hard you’re not likely to be wanting to go on with it.”
When you get to the school you realise very quickly the different approach staff take to teaching.
Students wear what they like, work at their own pace and there are no formal classrooms.
“They’re quite open spaces – we call them learning commons,” head of mathematics Jason Loke said.
“So within my learning common when I’m running a maths class I’ll very rarely be up the front teaching.
“It’s more about me moving around supporting the students as they go through the learning process.”