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Science education: Is Australia sabotaging its future? January 29, 2013

Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Secondary Education.
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from Wanasinghe Chandrasena

Science is a critical area for maintaining all that is good in Australia, and for addressing problems that need addressing. Accordingly, the Australian Prime Minister Ms Julia Gillard has expressedthe view  that “scientists are needed more than ever”when  addressing the nation’s most eminent scientists gathered for the presentation on the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science in 2010.

Science focuses on meeting basic human needs by laying the necessary foundation in diverse fields such as agriculture, medicine, other chemical industries (e.g., polymer, glass, steel, electric, electronic, stationery etc.), and transportation. Hence, science understanding is an increasingly precious resource throughout the world. As science underpins the development of technology, we cannot expect the development of technology without science. Despite the recognised need for better science education, many students (and their parents) consider science irrelevant to their personal interests and goals and are unaware of how many jobs require this knowledge. Why do they believe this?

The numbers of students pursuing science post-schooling continue to decline not only here in Australia, but internationally as well. There is a growing concern that the reduction in enrolments in science and technology subjects in Australia is threatening the success of the country’s innovation economy. For example, a decline in the study of basic sciences is predicted to affect Australia’s high technology economic sectors. Moreover, irrespective of the economic effects, the decline of interest in science is a serious matter for any society trying to raise the level of its scientific literacy, given that such literacy has so many applications in daily life.

 Leading academics have warned that Australia is jeopardising its future, and will not have the technical workforce to compete in the global marketplace because nothing is being done to tackle a shortage of scientists. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/08/10/1092102454146.html), it was reported that Australia will need an extra 75,000 scientists in the fields of chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Similarly a number of recent media articles have forecast potential shortages in science graduates. Perhaps in response, the article published in The Australian (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/education/blueprint-to-lift-teaching-standards-with-maths-and-science-to-be-compulsory/story-fn59nlz9-1226438982629) reports that under the reforms proposed by the New South Wales government, science and math are to be compulsory for aspiring teachers.

It is said that school science is often difficult and discouraging. It is true that science can be seen by many as a difficult subject. But it can also be an exciting subject.  The number of students taking science in Year 11 and 12 in Australia has been falling steadily since 1976, and the proportion doing physics has almost halved. A similar type of situation has been experienced in other developed countries such as USA, UK, and Germany.

 Some research has shown that the decline in science enrolments is related to many interrelated factors such as students’ academic abilities, teaching methods, the absence of motivation to study science, and a lack of interest in science subjects. I am currently conducting research that aims to identify the barriers to undertaking science for secondary students. A number of perceived barriers have been raised surrounding issues of: the difficulty of the subject matter, deficiencies in quality teaching, lack of positive attitudes among students towards science, a notable absence of stories in the media that promote the benefits of science, and the limited perceived career opportunities available in science.

  I am not suggesting that every student should want to be a scientist, but we need to encourage our students (tomorrow’s leaders) to at least consider the benefits of pursuing a science career. As such, many issues must be addressed, and can be addressed, to ensure science is advanced in this country. Preparing now can save us from repairing in the future.

Wanasinghe Chandrasena is a doctoral student in the Centre for Positive Psychology and Education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.



1. iresha - January 30, 2013

very good and very usefull.

Chandrasena - February 16, 2013

Thank you. Yes, aware of this situation is very important.

2. LEE - February 5, 2013

According to teenagers science is for nerds and the uncool kids at school and as long as the media promote sports and fashion and entertainment as sexy employment for young people then science will not be a “cool” career hence, in the mind of an impressionable adolescent the need to study science will not be relevant. Also as any doctorate student knows it takes a lot of time and dedication to reap the rewards of a scientific career and you are not likely to feature in the popular press!

Chandrasena - February 23, 2013

Thank you for your comments. That’s why we have to do something to change kids’ attitudes in order to popularize science. I agree as you have said the media is promoting arts and sports more than science. How many live shows in TV channels in Australia on the disciplines other than science? There are so many. Then kids think that science is not for them, which is wrong. On the other hand we can’t say that science is irrelevant. Today we are using this e-mail facility because of the development of science. If we look around us is there anything without science? For example mobile phone, IPod, IPad, TV, other stationary, clothes, food materials are some of them. Even for sports and fashion shows how much of science is used? As such, we should try to promote science in order to meet our future challenges. I agree that science is a bit challenging subject. Hence, students have to work hard in order to understand the basic concepts and principles behind the subject.

3. Robert Tillsley - February 13, 2013

I’m going to disagree here. Yes these problems exist, but the biggest problem to the uptake of science is that there are so few jobs for them.
You need a well funded research structure by government and a vibrant venture capital scene. Otherwise you can watch all the science graduates move on to jobs with little bearing on their studies.

Chandrasena - February 23, 2013

I agree for your comment only for some extent. The availability of employments in science depends on the discipline. For example in the medical field there are a lot of jobs. Still there is a shortage of school science teachers in Australia. However, in the IT field there are not that many
opportunities now. In 2010, 4500 jobs in the field of agriculture have been advertised. However, the number of agriculture graduates produced in the same year has been 743. So, there is a huge gap.

On the other hand as you mentioned government has to do something to support research in
science. Still there is a huge shortage of scientists.

If this problem is not addressed now, Australia has to look for more and more overseas expertise for the employments in science.

4. Gabriel - March 5, 2013

I think it is important to encourage students to explore science by themselves. Science is one of the subjects which technology can be applied extensively. It is important to transform students in a potential scientist, in other words, a human being that aims to expand the frontiers of knowledge.

Besides scientific experiments with a lot of technical and scientific content, experiments just to explore out world should be considered. Take an example this tool: http://www.zoompy.net The only purpose is to explore microscopy. Many scientific discoveries came from very simple objectives like just see the surface of the moon.

Chandrasena - July 1, 2013

I agree that students should be encouraged to explore. So, encouragement is important. With the basic knowledge of science it would be easier to explore. So, schools should help students to understand the basic concepts and principles in science. When students start with the basic understanding it is easier for them to catch up and discover new things. That’s why the number of discoveries are coming more rapidly than used to be in the past. However, we have to understand that the technology is developed due to the discoveries in science though technology is also
used in science.

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