Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Don’t Rush the Science Curriculum

By Lesley Parker and Alan Finkel

The rush to implement the new Australian Curriculum is jeopardising the future of science, engineering and maths education.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education in schools is essential for a prosperous, informed and scientifically and technologically competent nation. But Australia needs a significant and immediate investment in STEM teachers as we face a critical period in the development and implementation of the new Australian Curriculum. The investment in teachers is necessary to compensate for previous underinvestment.

Much of the past focus has been on motivating students to pursue STEM studies and careers. Hundreds of initiatives have been implemented but the impact of all these efforts has been frustratingly little. Enrolments in the so-called enabling subjects – physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology – appear to have stabilised at a low level without recovering from the significant decline of the past decade, while the performance of Australian students in international tests in science and mathematics has slipped and the list of projected shortages in many workforce areas dependent on STEM continues to grow.

More support for teachers is the key. STEM education researchers agree that the teacher is the most important factor in influencing student learning. The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers, and the only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction.

However, the only way to improve instruction in STEM is to ensure that teachers have adequate opportunity to acquire essential STEM content and the requisite skills to teach that content.

STEM teachers in Australia have been the victims of the government under-investment. This situation appears to be continuing.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, which is charged with developing the new Australian Curriculum, has announced it will be implemented between 2011 and 2013 – with little acknowledgement of the speed of this implementation and of the considerable extra demands on teachers and teacher educators who have to come to grips with the new curriculum.

With such a short timeline, implementation issues are not being addressed. The challenges of implementation include:

• teachers’ knowledge and skills in STEM;

• teacher workforce renewal to address the ageing of the current workforce and increasing demands placed on STEM educators;

• the availability of relevant teaching materials;

• support for in-curriculum initiatives designed to reach all students in a particular year level rather than just the ones for which teachers volunteer; and

• strong and practical support for the use of information and communications technologies required to teach STEM.

Responsible, modern curriculum development demands the preparation of a detailed plan to ensure that these and other implementation and evaluation issues are addressed, with adequate budgetary support.

This situation highlights the need for a radical re-think of the pre-service and in-service education of STEM teachers, including better budgets, teacher training collaboration with engineers and scientists, inducements for science graduates to teach, refocusing tertiary prerequisites to push more secondary students to choose STEM courses, and rewards for STEM teachers who upgrade their qualifications.

Lesley Parker is Chair of the ATSE Education Forum. Alan Finkel is Chancellor of Monash University and a former Director of ATSE.