Science education and Australia’s future - Education Matters Magazine
  •      

Science education and Australia’s future

Australia’s chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb released his recommendations for a strategic approach to science and its related fields. In the report entitled Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future Prof Chubb outlines his vision for a stronger and more competitive Australia.

“Science is infrastructure and it is critical to our future,” he said. “We must align our scientific effort to the national interest; focus on areas of particular importance or need; and do it on a scale that will make a difference to Australia and a changing world.”

Part of Prof Chubb’s report focuses on supporting high-quality Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and training.

“We are the only OECD country without a science or technology strategy,” he said. “Other countries have realised that such an approach is essential to remaining competitive in a world reliant on science and science-trained people.”

Education Matters magazine spoke with President of the Australian Science Teachers Association (ASTA), Robyn Aitken, about how science education in Australian schools is faring and how Prof Chubb’s plan to ‘give every Australian child an outstanding science education’ can best be achieved.

ASTA welcomes Prof Chubb’s strategic approach to STEM education and sees that this report and the national focus on STEM, opens new opportunities for collaboration, partnerships and investment in supporting existing and new teachers of science in building their confidence, capacity and expertise to inspire and encourage students to seriously consider the opportunities STEM can offer in the short term and in the longer career scenarios.

How is science education faring in the Australian primary school landscape?

There are some very passionate science teachers in primary schools. The BHP Billiton Science Engineering Awards science teacher awardee in 2014 was a primary teacher from Victoria and every year the PM science awards recognise an outstanding primary educator. However, a recent survey of primary teachers highlighted that science is rated as a significantly lower priority than literacy and numeracy and is often given little time in the school week. Survey respondents say they average between 1 and 2 hours of mandated time to teach science each week, but it is clear from comments made that these times are not always achieved. Interruptions to the weekly timetable, low confidence levels in teaching the subject as well as a lack of accountability all result in fewer hours taught over the course of any year level.

Resources are also important; many teachers conduct science in the classroom without access to any wet areas. PISA feedback from Australian principals indicated lack of resources as a problem especially in the Northern Territory.

How is science education faring in Australian secondary schools?

The situation is a little different in secondary schools, with timetabling of subjects and the availability of specialist science teachers. However, science and math’s teachers are in short supply in some areas and this results in teachers untrained in science, teaching science. This is exacerbated in rural and remote areas, and contributes in part to the low achievement levels of students from Indigenous and disadvantaged backgrounds in science.

Of additional concern is the potential uncertainty on the implementation of the Australian Curriculum by the recent announcement by the Commonwealth Government to review the Curriculum.

ASTA considers the review to be premature and recommended that more time be allowed to implement the current national curriculum.

The Australian Curriculum: Science is still in the early stages of being phased in with different states and territories at differing stages of implementation, ranging from initial introduction to 3 years of implementation.

ASTA has a strong view that all teachers of science across Australia need more time to become familiar with the current national curriculum that was developed through an exhaustive consultation process, agreed upon by each state and territory, is truly comprehensive, is academically rigorous and has a dynamic framework. Consideration needs to be given to the time and expertise ASTA member associations contributed to the development of the current curriculum.

To facilitate and support teachers in the implementation of the Australian Curriculum: Science, ASTA strongly advocates for a greater focus be placed on up-skilling teachers on the knowledge, skills & understandings that are required to teach and assess the new curriculum and senior courses of study. In Physics for example, there are many teachers who are from an era when such topics as Relativity and Quantum Physics were not included in their university courses.

In your opinion how can Ian Chubb’s plan to ‘give every Australian child an outstanding science education’ best be achieved? 

First by highlighting and making accessible what is already effective with teachers. All state and territory science teacher associations support and promote inquiry-based learning in science through providing professional learning for teachers and competitions where students’ open ended investigations are celebrated and shared. However, there are still many teachers who lack the confidence to allow students to learn in this way.

Teachers are change agents. Their influence on student interest and passion for specific subjects, including science, is well documented. Our teachers must remain relevant and able to reflect the nature and issues of our changing world in their teaching and ultimately increase student engagement in science.

A greater focus must be given to providing routine teacher professional learning. ASTA and the National Youth Science Forum (NYSF) run a summer school for teachers at ANU which puts teachers in contact with cutting edge science and the scientists working in that area. This experience is overwhelmingly positive with teachers re-energised and breaming with new knowledge to share with their students.

ASTA also advocates initiatives that focus on increased networking and mentoring opportunities that connect teachers with teachers and teachers with research and industry. ASTA in partnership with one of the state and territory associations hold a yearly conference (CONASTA) that enables delegates to hear from leading scientists and science educators as well as participate in numerous workshops showcasing best pedagogy in science education. In 2014, CONASTA was held in Adelaide and attracted over 500 delegates from across Australia.

How do you think more Australian school students can be encouraged to pursue science as a career?

Passionate teachers! Past surveys have shown that the teacher plays a significant role in influencing students pursuing science careers (Choosing Science, Lyons and Quinn 2010). Supporting teachers through resources and professional learning is critical if our teachers are to remain relevant and able to reflect the nature and issues of our changing world in their teaching and ultimately increase student engagement in science. As the peak national body representing teachers of science across Australia, ASTA strongly advocates increased support and professional development of teachers of science.