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Where does Australia stand on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education?

Experts respond to a report into international comparisons of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

The Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) is releasing a report into international comparisons of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. The report recommends introducing maths as a compulsory subject up to and including Year 12, reintroducing more comprehensive prerequisite requirements for university programs that require knowledge of science and maths and the recruitment of science PhD graduates into teaching.

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The first two comments are from independent experts:

Professor Martin Westwell is Director of the Flinders Centre for Science Education in the 21st Century at Flinders University

“At the core of this report is the need to make science education meaningful to young people – all young people. For too long, science and mathematics education has been a way of funnelling and filtering young people into STEM-related careers. This report shows the way to dismantling the pipeline and, through their teachers, developing young people who think about the world in scientific ways, with creativity, problem-solving, flexibility and critical thinking. Young people who think like this will explore and interpret the world through all of their learning and overcome the false distinctions between science, art and the humanities. Science will become part of who they are.”

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Professor Peter Andrews AO is s an eminent scientist, bio-entrepreneur and former Queensland Chief Scientist

“As China and India build bigger and better knowledge-intensive economies based on soaring numbers of STEM graduates, the proportions of Australian students going into Year 12 physics, chemistry and biology have halved over the last 30 years. The proportion of Australians graduating from universities in mathematics and statistics is less than half of the OECD average.

Why? It starts in primary school. We spend less time teaching primary school science and mathematics than any other country in the OECD. And in many cases that time is taught by teachers who have not studied maths and science at tertiary level and who don’t feel themselves well-equipped to teach those subjects.

While competitor nations draw trainee teachers from the top 30%, or even the top 10%, of school leavers, you can get into a teaching course in Australia if you’re anywhere in the top two thirds. You don’t need maths. You don’t need science. And when you emerge from the course you have a Bachelor degree, which may or may not contain any further maths and science, but you’re expected to go out and start teaching both in primary school and high school.

If we are going to be competitive in the 21st century, we must have the smartest scientists, and that means we must have the smartest teachers.”

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The following comments are from experts linked to the report:

Professor Bob Williamson is Secretary of Science Policy at the Australian Academy of Science

“The report from the learned Academies, including the Australian Academy of Science and the Academy of Engineering, offers a wealth of detail comparing science and technology education in Australia with that offered elsewhere. One point that comes over strongly in the report is that other countries are growing this sector much more quickly than Australia, and are also offering a broad education in science, maths and engineering to bright young students who will end up in other professions: teaching, business and government. We have to stop the decline in science and maths education and adopt a similar policy, because people in many professions now need to use science both at work and in everyday living.

The good news is that it is not too late: while we are falling behind, the gap is still small, and a concerted effort by Federal and State Governments could reverse the trend and put us near the top again.”

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Professor Russell Tytler is Professor of Science Education at Deakin University and Deputy Chair of the Expert Working Group on STEM education and a report co-author

“Australia performs well on international tests in mathematics and science but we are slipping down the list and also dropping in absolute performance. Too many students do not achieve mathematics and scientific literacy sufficient to participate in work and life as productive citizens. Our record on results across the spectrum is disappointing with low socio-economic students 2 years behind and indigenous students 3 years behind the average, worse than our best comparison countries. In our comparison countries there is a strong focus on equity, and quality learning for all students.

Our teachers do well but almost alone in the developed world we have a significant problem with mathematics and science being taught by teachers without strong backgrounds in these subjects. One in four year 7 to 10 maths classes is taught by a teacher without any university mathematics! We need urgent action on this.

In our comparison countries, teaching is a high status and attractive occupation and teachers have a strong background in their discipline and focus their professional growth around this. We need to develop strong models of teacher professional learning in discipline subjects.

Australia lacks the urgency of other countries, which are strongly focused on a national STEM agenda – innovative curriculum reform emphasising problem solving, critical thinking and creativity, partnerships between schools and industry, and building of strong university performance and research.”

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Professor Geoff Prince is Director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute at The University of Melbourne and member of the Expert Working Group on STEM education

“International comparison is valuable because it gives perspective to our challenges. For me the shortage of qualified maths teachers in our secondary schools is made even more serious now that we see how well-prepared and highly valued maths teachers are elsewhere. We can’t really turn around our declining enrolments in maths, physical sciences and engineering until we get on top of this teaching problem. We’ve been complacent and this study shows that.”

Source: AusSMC
*ACOLA is a partnership between four Australian Learned Academies: Australian Academy of the Humanities, Australian Academy of Science, Academy of Social Sciences in Australia and Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.