Professor Ian Chubb, Australia's Chief Scientist
HOW we prepare our nation to be ready to confront the unpredictabilities of the future must be one of the most important questions we face.
Australia is no different from much of the rest of the world.
We need high quality education in science, mathematics, engineering and technology — from school through university and afterwards — in the right numbers to make a difference.
We also need a high level of scientific literacy in the community so that citizens may make better informed decisions. And we need it to spill over into the employment sector so that a quality science education will be seen as more generally useful, not just because of, say, the physics major, but because of the process underpinning a science education: the reliance on evidence, the skepticism, the views of peers — and learning from the process that there is a difference between evidence and belief.
Quality education offered to all Australians, whatever their circumstances and wherever they live, is at the heart of our future.
We aren't there yet. The level of scientific literacy in our community is too low; and the interest of young people in science is also too low. Again, we are not alone.
A few years ago the ROSE project [Relevance Of Science Education] asked students aged 15 whether they would like to be scientists.
There was essentially an inverse relationship in the responses: the more developed the country the less the interest. The same relationship was apparent when students were asked if they would like a job in technology, together with a stunning lack of interest on the part of females in the developed countries.
Australia, which was not part of the earlier study, is similar to the developed countries that were. A 2011 study (The Status and Quality of Year 11 and 12 Science in Australian Schools) found just 33 per cent of students in Year 11 and 12 thought science was 'almost always' relevant to their future (although 47 per cent thought it 'almost always' relevant to Australia's future!) and only 19 per cent thought it 'almost always' useful in everyday life.
Of the students not studying science, 1 per cent thought it relevant to their future 'almost always' (42 per cent thought never) and 4 per cent thought it 'almost always' useful in everyday life.
Considering the science and mathematics behind everything from their clothes, shoes, bank notes, computers, mobiles and food, this is profoundly discomforting.
A 2012 report by Universities Australia found the university choices of one in three students were influenced by past teachers; nearly 40 per cent did not feel encouraged to do well in maths and science by their teachers.
Late last year I was asked by the Prime Minister to provide advice on means to attract more students into mathematics and science — at school and university.
We ourselves got a lot of advice about what to say as we consulted as widely as possible. The clearest message was the importance of inspirational teaching.
We do not do badly in international testing. We may be slipping but we have done a lot right. But this is about the future, not the past. What we have is a platform to build from, to arrest any decline and prepare the coming generations to face the ever changing world.
We ask a lot of our teachers. They in turn have a great deal of responsibility; they have a very real influence on the shape of the Australia of the future.
I do believe that we should support our teachers better — and prepare them better. It is one part of the story to provide quality pre-service education. The other part is a firm and unremitting commitment for in-service support.
The pedagogical skills doubtless change with different generations, and one thing we know about science is that it doesn't stand still.
The commitment to our teachers must be central to our educational philosophy, embedded in our philosophy, so that it is not subject to the stop/start of small funding packages and terminating programs.
The point is a simple one: without good teachers we do not have a good education system. Without a good education system, and a deep long term commitment to education, our future is bleak.