Science and maths required for all – no short cuts if nation to improve, report argues

05 June, 2013

Students could be required to study science and maths through to the senior school years and both subjects beefed up as prerequisite to science-related university courses if key findings from research carried out at the request of Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, are acted on.

The findings, which include valuing engineering as equivalent to law as a generic preparation for careers in business and government, pull no punches about how to improve Australian’s skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

They were made in the STEM: Country Comparisons project, co-authored by Deakin University’s Professor of Science Education, Russell Tytler, and Melbourne University’s Professor Simon Marginson and Drs Brigid Freeman and Kelly Roberts and launched by Professor Chubb on behalf of the Australian Council of Learned Academies today. (5 June)

The report compares Australian’s participation and competencies in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) with 26 comparison countries and considers whether Australia can use their experiences to increase its productivity and international competitiveness in STEM.

Professor Tytler summarised the features of high performing STEM countries such as Finland, Shanghai, Korea, and Canada as including high status of teachers and a focus on disciplinary depth and meritocratic advancement, a strong commitment to learning across the socio-economic spectrum, an emphasis on creativity and critical thinking, and a strong national policy framework driving innovation.

Professor Tytler, who is based at the University’s Waurn Ponds campus, in Geelong, said the timing of the report was particularly significant when considered against recent announcements by major employers Ford and Shell to close operations in the city.

“The reality now is that science and technology has a ubiquitous role across our lives,” he said.

“There are many human activities and problems, such as the use of energy, global warming and health and medical care where understanding them requires at least a basic scientific and technological knowledge and confidence.

“Economically as well, we need an ever-growing proportion of the workforce to have quantitative and symbolic skills and basic scientific knowledge.

“In manufacturing and farming for instance most workers require some scientific and technological literacy and this is increasingly true in education and health.

“This means that academic and vocational programs need to be strong in science, technology, maths and engineering skills.

“As Geelong restructures its economy and considers the skills its population will need in the future findings of this report is something for the City to seriously consider.”

Professor Tytler said the findings of the report indicated the need to tackle two key issues – increasing the numbers of students studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects and ensuring teachers had the skills to support students in the creative and critical thinking that this entailed.

“Currently Australian students see a failure to achieve in science and maths as a lack of capability, whereas in our East Asian comparator countries everyone is seen as having the capability and excellence comes through effort,” he said.

“Work at Deakin and at other universities have identified successful strategies which build students’ optimism and resilience in their abilities to solve problems.

“These students may have otherwise been identified as untalented and unsuccessful in mathematics.”

Professor Tytler said if Australia was serious about developing a population which had strong Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths skills then it had include students from low socio economic and indigenous backgrounds.

“Currently the education system is fragmented, with students proficient in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths in public and private schools in high socio economic status areas.

“This is at odds with our strongest comparator countries who emphasise participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths for all students.”

Professor Tytler said Australia has a longer tail of under-performing students than nearest comparator Canada. “In the PISA international assessment we do well, but 28% of students in the poorest quarter of the population fall below the mathematical literacy benchmark for being able to participate in work and life as productive citizens, compared to 4% for the top quarter.

“The figure is 40% for indigenous students – a performance gap equivalent to almost two years’ schooling”

“It is worth us looking closely at the work Canada is doing in this area where their teaching is culturally responsive, indigenous elders are involved and indigenous knowledge is incorporated into the study of science,” he said.

“On the basis of this report, advancing the teaching of Science Technology Engineering and Maths
and learning for Australian indigenous students needs wide discussion.”

Professor Tytler said the report acknowledged the reasons why students opted out of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects, particularly at primary school, including the need to have positive experiences with the subjects as well as the career paths they offered.

“The problem we have is that while knowledge about effective teaching of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects has advanced, inertia in the system means that many schools and teachers adhere to traditional teaching approaches ” he said.

“So a traditional maths or science lesson could focus on delivery of knowledge and practice of set piece problems, a more engaging lesson would involve inquiry and problem solving with students using critical and imaginative thinking.

“The situation is reinforced by assessment that maintains a focus on testing a comprehensive coverage of concepts at a relatively low level of reasoning and problem solving.”

Professor Tytler said the situation in schools was often exacerbated, particularly in maths, by the number of teachers teaching in areas outside their chosen field – a phenomena found in Australia but not comparator countries.

"One in four year 7-10 maths classes is taught by a teacher without any university mathematics!" he said.

Professor Tytler said an important part of the solution outlined in the report lay in not having teachers teaching out of field.

The report also canvasses, specific salaries for teachers teaching science and maths, encouraging teachers taking higher degrees and encouraging Phds proficient in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects to teach in schools.

“Australia also has a low incidence of primary school teachers with major studies in science or mathematics, unlike our comparator countries,” he said.

“We know that the student experience in the primary and early secondary years are strongly indicative of their eventual choice.

“If we are to help students keep open the possibility of Science Technology Engineering and Maths subjects and choose a career in that area or even engage productively with the science and maths as citizens then the maths and science experiences before the middle years of schooling needs to be positive and engaging and the students need to be aware of the range of people and activities comprising Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths in society.”

“There are no short-cuts here.”

News facts
  • Report urges study of science and maths through to the senior school years
  • Engineering should be as equivalent to law as a generic preparation for careers in business and government
  • Study of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths should embrace all students not just those from public and private schools in high socio economic status areas

Media contact

Sandra Kingston
Deakin Media Relations
03 9246 8221/ 0422 005 485

Russell Tytler

Professor Russell Tytler

View the full report here

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6th June 2013