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Preparing for the future by repairing now November 5, 2013

Posted by christinefjohnston in Directions in Education, Secondary Education.
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By Jessy Abraham

In his blog Science education: Is Australia sabotaging its future? published in January 2013,  Wanasinghe Chandrasena raised the major concern of the declining student participation in sciences in Australia. He observed that, although this trend is a global phenomenon, Australia needs to be proactive in protecting its scientific future.  Chandrasena concluded by saying “Preparing now can save us from repairing in the future,” implying that we need to encourage students to study science.

There has been much research on the increasing reluctance of students to pursue the study of sciences nationally and internationally. Some of these studies identify strategies to attract more students, particularly more females, to the sciences. In Australia, some suggested actions include curricular reforms, gender inclusive practices, and contextualisation of science curriculum. However, student participation has not improved in recent decades, particularly in the ‘hard’ sciences such as physics. In Australia, senior secondary physics reports the lowest student participation and classes are still male dominated, with 75% of students being male.

While Chandrasena’s blog acknowledged issues with attracting more students to study the sciences, I think there is another crucial issue science educators should be concerned with: are we doing enough to retain those who have chosen to do sciences at senior secondary level?  For example, of the traditional sciences (physics, chemistry and biology), physics has been generally perceived as the most difficult and demanding subject by students (e.g. Barmby & Defty, 2006). The data from the New South Wales (NSW) Board of Studies suggest that while physics reports the lowest student participation among the traditional science subjects at senior secondary level, every year since 2000 over 21% of males and 25% females discontinue physics during their transition from the first year of senior secondary schooling (Year 11) to the final year (Year 12). The rate of attrition is slowly but steadily increasing, reaching 24% and 31% respectively for males and females in 2009-2010. Student attrition is reported for all subjects during the transition from Year 11 to Year 12; however, attrition from Physics deserves special attention. In NSW as in other states of Australia, senior secondary physics is generally chosen by high academic achievers with high career aspirations. They report high self-efficacy in the subject and typically come from families with high socio educational status and high parental education (Fullarton & Ainley, 2000). This means that a quarter of this ‘elite’ group of students is leaving physics after one year of study of the subject.  We need to shift our attention to this salient issue. Why do some students who expressed an initial motivation to study physics discontinue the subject after one year? What makes female students drop physics at a higher rate than males?  What can we do to retain them in physics? I am certain that these questions are pertinent to other sciences as well.

It is a common belief that sciences at the senior secondary level are selected by students for their strategic value in getting entry to competitive courses that lead to prestigious jobs or have more employment opportunities. Research findings support this (e.g. Barnes, 1999; Eccles & Wigfield, 1995). In fact, the strongest influential factor on students’ physics enrolment intentions has been identified as its subjective ‘utility value’ that is, the usefulness of the subject in securing admission to highly regarded university courses and high status jobs (Barnes, 1999). A recent decline in the immediate utility value of traditional science subjects in relation to university entry has been linked to the declining enrolment in senior secondary physics in Australia (Lyons & Quinn, 2010). Therefore, are the students who continue studying physics merely motivated by its perceived utility value? Are those who discontinue physics doing so because the utility value has decreased for them? If that is not the case, what are the factors that influence student retention in physics?

My study among Year 11 physics students in NSW schools identified that, though students still attach high utility value to physics, it is not the most influential factor in sustaining their enrolment intentions to Year 12 as might be expected. The evidence suggested that it was the students’ expectancies of success that largely predicted their plans to continue with physics. That is, though the instrumental value of physics can be high for the students, they do not like to stay on in physics if they think that they are not good in the subject.  This displays the competitive learning style promoted in Australian schools and the considerable importance students place on Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) which is calculated at the end of the final year of senior secondary school examinations. There is a trend among students to discontinue the subjects in which they are not achieving well enough to get high ATAR, even though they enjoy learning the subject.

What are some effective steps teachers could adopt in physics classrooms? Teachers need to be aware of the motivational significance of performance perceptions students develop in physics while learning the subject. The school and classroom environments are vital contexts that can enhance the performance perceptions of students. Teachers should employ strategies to ensure that students feel competent and achieve success. For example, teachers could conceptualise success in alternative ways rather than simply high achievement in summative assessment tasks. If students are in a classroom where success is defined in terms of self-improvement rather than getting high grades in tests then all students have the chance to feel successful. Cooperative and collaborative learning activities may encourage students to work together to solve tasks rather than to compete against each other. Social interactions can make everybody share the feeling of success and therefore increase enthusiasm for the subject.

Another interesting finding from my study was on the gender stereotyped attitudes towards physics.  Physics just as any Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, is subjected to gender stereotypes such as; a female may perceive that she is not capable of  success and the careers related to the subject are not suitable for her (e.g. Barmby & Defty, 2006). Females in my study indicated that their motivation and engagement with the subject were equal to or higher than those of male students. This suggests that once students have started studying physics, their motivation and engagement may not necessarily vary as expected through gender biases. This information may prevent physics teachers from making false evaluations that lead to gender differentiated expectations and classroom practices (Elwood & Comber, 1996). Teachers should be aware that sex stereotypes could significantly reduce student engagement and participation. Therefore, learning experiences and teaching practices that discourage the development of such attitudes should be incorporated into physics instruction.

My study focused on physics, a subject which is likely to report a shortage of qualified persons more obviously than the other STEM related careers in the near future in Australia. The retention of students in other STEM courses also needs attention. I would like to suggest that preparing and repairing now, can safeguard Australia’s scientific future.


Barmby, P., & Defty, N. (2006). Secondary School Pupils’ Perceptions of Physics. Research in Science & Technological Education, 24(2), 199–215.

Barnes, G. R. (1999). A Motivational Model of Enrolment Intentions in Senior Secondary Science Courses in New South Wales Schools. Doctoral dissertation, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur.

Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (1995). In the Mind of the Actor: The Structure of Adolescents’ Achievement Task Values and Expectancy-Related Beliefs. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(3), 215–225. doi: 10.1177/0146167295213003.

Elwood, J., & Comber, C. (1996). Gender Differences in Examinations at 18+: final report. London: Institute of Education.

Fullarton, S., & Ainley, J. (2000). Subject Choice by Students in Year 12 in Australian Secondary Schools. LSAY Research Reports. Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth Research Report. Camberwell, Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Lyons, T., & Quinn, F. (2010). Choosing Science: Understanding the Declines in Senior High School Science Enrolments. Research Report to the Australian Science Teachers Association: UNE.

 Jessy Abraham is a Lecturer in the School of Education, University of Western Sydney

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.


The future of Science Literacy: link it or lose it! November 21, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education.
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from Colin Webb

In this post Colin Webb argues that science education is insufficiently valued in primary (elementary) schools, and that the most effective forms of science learning combine both science and literacy learning strategies.

I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald recently with some sadness. The headline read: ‘Focus on basic skills blamed for decline in reading standards’ (SMH 21/09/2010). I have long held the belief that a focus on state and national testing of literacy and numeracy would not only lead to a narrowing of the curriculum but also to a decline in literacy standards. Professor Barry McGaw, the chairman of the Curriculum and Assessment Authority, has analysed Australia’s decline in reading performance and described this fall as statistically significant, and has suggested that it is mostly the result of a decline in student performance at the highest level.

So, what has this to do with the future of science education? There have been sad but consistent indications that primary schools are increasingly partitioning the curriculum, with the result that science education is perceived as not as important as the results obtained in NAPLAN tests. In combination, the emphasis on literacy and numeracy, as defined by NAPLAN results, together with the quarantining of science education, has resulted in science being relegated to a lower position in the curriculum hierarchy. McGaw suggests that the decline in reading performance is “… due to schools focusing more on basic achievement levels and not so much on the development of sophisticated reading of complex text.” It is now common for primary schools to have specific times in the day that are allocated purely to teaching literacy and numeracy. The future for science education in primary schools is one that must be linked with literacy (and numeracy) rather than one where science education is considered of little importance under the regime of national testing. The focus on basic achievement levels rather than the sophistication and complexities of factual texts encountered in scientific content essentially implies a ‘dumbing’ down of science itself. Not only is science rarely taught in the primary school curriculum, but when it is the opportunities for literacy development are overlooked because science and literacy are not integrated.

Norris and Phillips (2003) argue that western science would not be possible without text, and that because of the dependence of western science upon text, a person who cannot read and write is severely limited in the depth of scientific knowledge, learning, and education he or she can acquire. To be truly scientifically literate, students must acquire a fundamental sense of scientific literacy that involves reading and writing when the content is science. Being knowledgeable, learned and educated in science is a derived sense of scientific literacy. The two senses are related. Most conceptions or definitions of scientific literacy focus more on the derived sense of literacy and not to the fundamental sense. Reading and writing are essential elements of learning in science and are inextricably linked to the very nature and fabric of science, and, by extension, to learning science.

Using learning experiences that focus on science (and technology) as the starting point provides an authentic context for teachers to develop both a fundamental sense of literacy and a derived sense of science literacy; in other words, the foundations of meaningful scientific literacy. They can integrate fundamental literacy skills and also develop the derived sense of scientific literacy. It would seem to me that creating authentic and integrated science and literacy programs may have the advantage of increasing the literacy levels of students as well as their general scientific literacy.

References: McGaw.B. (2010) ‘Focus on basic skills blamed for decline in reading standards (SMH. 21/09/2010)’. Norris, S. P., & Phillips, L. M. (2003). How literacy in its fundamental sense is central to scientific literacy. Science Education, 87, 224-240.

Colin Webb is a Lecturer in science education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. He particularly specialises in and promotes engaging science pedagogies for young people aged 3-12 years.

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