Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science Student Enrolments: The Glass Is Half-Full

By Simon Grose

Fewer science students at school is better than more. It’s what they do next that matters.

The glum spin was predictable late last year when the Australian Academy of Science released The Status and Quality of Year 11 and 12 Science in Australian Schools. Commissioned by the Chief Scientist, the report found that from 1991 to 2010 the percentage of Year 11 and 12 students enrolled in science subjects had fallen from 94% to 51%.

The lead author of the study, Prof Denis Goodrum, who heads the process to develop a national science curriculum, described the downward trend as “quite staggering” and likely to continue.

“For a country that believes its future prosperity depends on innovation and a skilled workforce, this situation needs to be addressed.”

Does it? Look on the bright side: more than of half the 2010 cohort were studying science.

If the 1991 figure is correct only 6% of senior students were not doing science. That means a lot of students hanging down the back of science classes had little interest or aptitude for what they were studying, forcing teachers to devote too much preparation and class-time energy to making their lessons interesting and imposing discipline.

Twenty years later, with that 40% out of the way, teachers would have been able to focus their efforts on the keener 54% to give them a much better learning experience than their 1991 counterparts.

The report acknowledges this: “The general picture that emerges is that fewer students are studying science but these fewer students enjoy the science they experience and it is in keeping with their expectations for the future.”

Even so, students and teachers still had complaints. The report found that because Year 11 and 12 science curricula are designed to prepare students for university they are “content-laden”, offering “little room for flexibility from either the teacher or student” and “conceptually difficult with an emphasis on theoretical abstract ideas”.

Hey, this is science, the kids are smart so they need a challenge, and they cop a lot of pressure from home and school to aim for a high score in their final year so they can pick from a long menu of university options.

The new national curriculum will undoubtedly respond to these findings. Whether it delivers a better platform for science education will be debated at the highest levels of education academe and among Year 10 graduates as they contemplate what is in store for them in the next 2 years.

If at least half of them study science in their final years there will be plenty of smart candidates to follow that through into university. To maximise their contribution to an “innovation and a skilled workforce”, the trick then is to motivate more of them to plan a career in research – or even science teaching.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (sciencemedia.com.au).