If you weren’t at the National Press Club on 28th September and you haven’t yet read Professor Suzanne Cory’s address,
it was a passionate and well constructed argument in support of science and maths education. Professor Cory is one of Australia’s most distinguished molecular biologists. She was Director of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and Professor of Medical Biology of The University of Melbourne from 1996 to 2009. She is currently a Research Professor in the Molecular Genetics of Cancer Division at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow of The University of Melbourne
and the president of the Australian Academy of Science.
An excerpt from the speech is reprinted here, courtesy of “The Conversation”, who published an edited transcript under the Creative Commons license.
“Without a robust and inspiring science and maths education system, it’s impossible to create an internationally-competitive workforce.Myriad jobs – apart from the obvious research, engineering and technology careers – require a basic understanding of science and maths.And, as a parent, a mentor of young scientists and a passionate advocate for quality education, I know that all children are natural born scientists.”
““Why?”, “How?”, and “What happens if …?” are questions asked frequently by young children, whose natural spirit of inquiry is crucial to understanding the big exciting world around them.We need to harness this natural curiosity and nurture it with inspiring education.Australian public expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP is just 4.2% – significantly below the OECD average of 5.4%.”
“A decade ago, a review of Australian science education, revealed many students were disappointed with their high school science.Today, this disenchantment continues, as evidenced by the declining number of students choosing to study science in senior secondary school. Consider the following:
In 1991, more than a third of Year 12 students chose to study biology. That now sits at less than a quarter.23% of Year 12 students studied chemistry ten years ago, compared with 18% now.In the same period, physics has fallen from 21% to 14%.While Australian students have been losing interest in science, their international peers have been taking it up with great enthusiasm.”
“The OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) examines the scientific literacy of teenagers in 57 different countries.In 2000, the only nations that performed better than Australia were Korea and Japan. In 2009 – the most recent figures available – Australia ranked behind Shanghai, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Korea.”
“What happened? The Assessment indicated that the performance of other countries has improved while Australia’s has remained stationary.A recent survey conducted by Science and Technology Australia and the Academy of Science showed Australians clearly value science – 80% of respondents acknowledged science education is absolutely essential or very important to the national economy.But it also revealed some alarming holes in the basic science understanding of the average Australian.”
“Three in ten believe humans were around at the time of dinosaurs.More than a fifth of our university graduates think that it takes just one day for the Earth to travel around the sun.Almost a third of Australians do not think evolution is currently occurring. About a quarter say human activity is not influencing the evolution of other species: a worrying statistic given the impact that human activity is having on the environment. In other words, many of us do not understand even the most basic science. How can we halt this slide in science and maths in our schools and attain an internationally enviable position?”
“Thankfully, our government is already investing significantly in school infrastructure and in rolling out a national high-speed internet network. Last December, education ministers approved the content for new national curricula in English, history, maths and science. In coming months, they’ll be asked to sign off on the standards for these curricula. This is an important initiative and the Academy of Science applauds it. But we also need investment in teachers, and in inspiring curriculum programs.This is a responsibility for both the Commonwealth and the States, who must work together rather than reverting to the blame game.”
“Inspired (and inspiring) teachers will be the most important agents for improving educational outcomes. We must place a much higher societal value on teachers and do everything we can to recruit some of our brightest and best into teaching. We must support these educators with the best tools and resources available and provide them with stimulating opportunities for ongoing training.”
If you are interested to read more about Australia’s position in terms of world education (tertiary), the latest OECD report “Education at a Glance” is summarized in a Sydney Morning Herald article, “Our Unworldly Ways“.
As a Science and Maths teacher, I can’t agree more with Professor Cory’s sentiments, and I hope state and federal politicians and bureaucrats take note of her suggestions. Everyday I work to share my passion for science, to inspire my students, to encourage their curiosity for the world around them and for how it works. As teachers of 21st century learners, we need to address their unique characteristics – ability to multi-task, digital literacy, mobility, 24/7 internet connected, quick response times and short attention spans. There are many teachers working in their own classrooms to “be the change they want to see” in education, despite the conflicting demands of external data collection, changing curriculum emphasis and “administrivia”.
How do you manage to tread the fine line between doing what you know is best for your individual students while still fulfilling systemic demands? What do you believe are the keys to improving science understanding in Australian schools? Are your answers to both these questions complementary?