1224th Ordinary General Meeting

"Saving Australia through science education"

Emeritus Scientia Professor Eugenie Lumbers AM DistFRSN

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The world is experiencing an exponential rate of technological progress. Change was relatively gradual from the time and the domestication of the horse until the 17th century. Indeed, in the early stages the Industrial Revolution, industry was still heavily dependent on horse-drawn transport. In 1900, just 14 years after the invention of the motor car, there were still 300,000 horses in service in London. That same year, there were 0.11 cars per thousand people in the US; in 2009 there are 828. This enormous, rapidly accelerating technological change took place as a consequence of science and its application in development of technology. The question is why was such enthusiasm for science in the 1940s and 1950s but this has largely disappeared today in many countries, not the least of which is Australia. This poses a major challenge for Australia – how will we keep up with technological progress when few people are interested in seeking a science or technological education? Despite the apparent interest in science, in a multitude of TV programmes for example, this is actually positioning science as entertainment, not as true science.

Despite this rapid shift away from science, Australia was still doing well by international standards until the late 20th century. In 2000, Australia ranked number three in the world (after South Korea and Japan) in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, a test that measures problem-solving capability in 15-year-olds. In the latest test, in 2012, Australia ranks number 8 (after Singapore, South Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taipei and Canada). It is not surprising that Australia's ranking is slipping when only 51% take a science subject in year 12 and less than 20% studied chemistry or physics. (Interestingly, biology is somewhat higher at 25% because it is seen as being "less academic".) What will the future look hold when the technologically-educated people of today are gone? It is extraordinary that 76% of Australians do not see science directly relevant to themselves but important to Australia's future.

The Academy of sciences tried to address this through its "Primary Connections" programme and inquiry brace programme to help teachers develop their teaching programmes and to provide curriculum resources. Similarly, the Academy's "Science by Doing" programme to secondary schools is aimed at stimulating the all-important interest and enjoyment in science for children in early secondary school so that they go on to choose a career in science.

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