Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science for Dummies

By John O’Connor

How concerned should we be that many Australians don't know some basic science facts?

There has been a range of comment about the recent Academy of Science survey on science literacy, ranging from criticism of such surveys and their relevance through to serious concern about the decline in literacy.

The criticism is based on the belief that it covers knowledge which is no longer relevant in the modern era and just gives an opportunity to highlight a deficiency that needs to be addressed for educational reasons or a target for greater science outreach. But is it so irrelevant?

The basic knowledge about the Earth taking a year to orbit the Sun is relevant if a person wants to understand why there are seasons and why they are different between the northern and southern hemispheres. It, combined with the orbit of the Moon around the Earth, impact on numerous alternative energies which are of current interest, so it is very relevant. Similarly for the other “basic” knowledges that are built on for more sophisticated knowledge essential in today’s society.

This is not to say that a person cannot get through life without an adequate understanding of science, or for that matter of maths, or spelling and grammar. Sometimes, in rare occasions, such individuals can even excel but these are rare individuals and circumstances. To give an individual and society the best opportunity to grow and develop then there must be a growth in these skills.

The knowledge about the length of a year, or about evolution, or similar questions are a proxy to what is known about even more crucial information needed to be able to participate in discussions on genetic modification, global warming, nuclear power, nanotechnology, cloning and the plethora of other modern issues facing science and society. If the fundamentals are not known, how can the critics argue that the science associated with these more sophisticated issues is appreciated by the people charged with having a considered view?

It can be taken as a given that the community considers science to be important for the Australian economy, with greater than 75% considering it important or very important and over 90% considering at least “somewhat” important. This reflects the interest level that students and the public have in science as demonstrated through national surveys and international benchmarks.

However, this is not translating to greater engagement with the sciences as a career. Unfortunately science is seen as something of an interesting hobby to follow but not a potential engaging career. This attitude cannot continue if we are to remain competitive in a world economy which places greater value on invention and innovation than on extracting minerals and exporting them. It also provides the key to success of science outreach and education in the long term.

We don’t have to develop activities to “interest” students and the public in science, but we do have to engage with them to convince them that there is a place for them in a science career. We need to provide an incentive to explore these subjects for future employment prospects rather than as a hurdle to get over as quickly as possible before going on to what is perceived as career relevant studies.

Some see science communication as the solution. However, it is difficult for science communication to adequately address literacy. Literacy is best addressed in school where there is more time available to properly develop knowledge, understanding and skills.

The dual role of science communication and education is essential, in one case to enthuse and engage students revealing the breadth and impact of science, and the latter to inspire and develop understanding. Furthermore, a once-off exposure to science communication is not sufficient. We need to establish a lifelong exposure to science communication to build on the engagement.

Thus a successful science literacy and career program requires a strong science communication and teaching partnership. Such a program has been developed at the University of Newcastle, where a range of targeted science communication activities have been developed for students from primary school with the SMART (Science, Maths and Real Technology) program, to the primary / secondary transition with the Discovery Day and Build a Future programs through to senior high school with the national Science and Engineering Challenge.

With this program, teacher resources and staff development programs have been developed in parallel to ensure that the impact of the outreach carries through to the classroom and ensures a longevity in the impact not otherwise realised. This engagement with the teaching profession is further enhanced with a staff development Teachers’ Visit Day, which is run annually to strengthen the partnerships between the university and its local teaching community.

The results of the survey have been interpreted as suggesting our community is “dumb”, which is an emotive word designed to discredit the findings and process. It should be considered a proxy to a bigger science literacy issue. It reveals we are missing an opportunity to lift our society and economy to a more enlightened and aware community which will allow us to realise new opportunities.

Professor John O’Connor is Head of the School of Mathematics and Physical Sciences at the University of Newcastle.