Why Maths and Science Education Matters!

~Victoria Birch~

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In 2012, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard commissioned Australia’s Chief Scientist (Professor Ian Chubb) to compile a report on maths and science education. The paper underlined the critical importance of robust participation and performance.  A workforce with a substantial proportion educated in Mathematics, Engineering and Science is essential to future prosperity.

“A workforce with a substantial proportion educated in Mathematics, Engineering and Science is essential to future prosperity.”

Australia’s economic future may hinge on its mathematical literacy and scientific achievement but the country is witnessing a decline in secondary level academic performance.  According to the 2012 Programme for International Assessment (PISA) report, Australia’s national mean average in mathematics dropped by 20 points in just under a decade.  The same report recorded significant decreases in scientific performance in both SA and the ACT, with Australia overall being outperformed by seven other nations.

A critical means of arresting the decline is quality teaching.   Inspirational teachers instill passion and enthusiasm in students. They show how theory etched out on a whiteboard can be the spark for incredible achievement, innovation and career opportunities.  Great teachers are the key to high performance and widespread enthusiasm.  Unfortunately, Australia just doesn’t have enough of them.

Secondary schools are facing a growing shortage of teachers with a specialist background in maths and science. As such, educators without the requisite knowledge base are called upon to plug the gaps. According to the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI), “Around 30% of those teaching maths in years 7/8 -10, and around 40% of those teaching maths classes in years 11-12 are not fully qualified to teach mathematics.”

“Around 30% of those teaching maths in years 7/8 -10, and around 40% of those teaching maths classes in years 11-12 are not fully qualified to teach mathematics.”

Student engagement depends on inspired teaching. Not only to convey complex principles but to overcome other hurdles.   Teachers need to make science thrilling, even if health and safety concerns force students to watch experiments rather than participate in them.  Teachers need to encourage girls to have the confidence in their mathematical abilities so they can perform on par with boys. Teachers need to be responsible for equitable learning through representation in rural and economically deprived areas.

If young people are failing to engage with maths and science at secondary school, it’s unlikely they will pursue the subjects at university. It’s no surprise that in 2013 the AMSI found that, “Australian graduation rates in the mathematical sciences run at only half the OECD average for men and one-third for women.”

“Australian graduation rates in the mathematical sciences run at only half the OECD average for men and one-third for women.”

A diminishing pool of qualified graduates presents a tautological problem: poor academic performance and subject interest means a reduced ability to develop quality teachers; a reduced number of quality teachers hinders academic performance and subject interest.

The circuit breaker will ultimately require a mix of monetary investment, policy change and educational reform.  But while lobbyists and government bodies’ wrangle over the best means to effect change, Australia’s academic performance continues to suffer.

The outlook for maths and science learning in Australia may appear bleak, but changes are happening outside the political sphere to give the subjects a much-needed boost.

Web-based learning environments now provide an immersive, virtual reality experience. Students may not be able to grow a forest in the school lab, but in a virtual world they can create an entire biosphere or make chemical compounds with real life results.  Similarly maths is being taken out of the classroom and onto the web, enabling children to learn through interactive games and puzzles.  It’s a modern way to engage IT savvy students.

So too is the emergence of scientific discovery within popular culture.   Dr. Brian Cox is a physicist with a rock star past and a series of popular TV shows that make the wonders of the universe accessible to all. It’s thought his influence is responsible for a 50% increase in physics degree enrolments in the UK over the last eight years. Along with TV sitcom Big Bang Theory and podcasts such as The Infinite Monkey cage, Dr Cox is helping bring maths and science out of the intellectual margins and into the public consciousness.

It’s exciting to see what can happen when young minds switch onto the possibilities of scientific discovery. The more students consider maths and science as conduits for a brilliant future, the more we can look forward to the prospect of an abundance of great teachers. Clearly, a celebrity physicist isn’t the silver bullet required by Australia’s education system, but Dr. Cox’s impact on student engagement is an important reminder of what can be achieved if we’re prepared to invest in the next generation of inspirational teachers.

So … where do you stand?

Should we be concerned about the future of maths and science education in Australia?

Join our online discussion or comment below to add your voice.