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Get real: taking science to the next generation of Einsteins

Is it time to shrug off the old ways of teaching science for the benefit of everyone? pplflickr

THE STATE OF SCIENCE: If there is a crisis in student enrolment numbers in school science, where does that come from? Denis Goodrum asks whether a new perspective could revolutionise both teaching and learning.

In 1992, 94% of all Australian Year 12 students studied science. According to a soon-to-be-finalised report I’ve been working on, this figure has now shrunk to 50%. Such a dramatic fall in student numbers raises many questions about school science in our country.

Before answering the obvious questions – why the decline, how do we address it? – we maybe have to ask ourselves why science should be taught in schools at all.

The history of science is built upon questions resulting from observations and the gathering of evidence. The answers to these questions form the body of knowledge that is commonly called “science”.

This body of knowledge is continually changing, and in recent years it has been rapidly increasing. And the process of building this scientific knowledge is as important as the knowledge itself.

Magda Wojtyra

Evidence, not dogma

Why should students study science?

At a recent meeting I attended in the USA to discuss this question, a salty old miner listened to a range of learned reasons, then reacted with the following comment: “Students should learn science so they can guard against superstition and cruddy goods!”

That’s not a bad reason when you think about it. People will make better decisions about issues that affect them if those decisions are based on evidence and reason rather than superstition and dogma. The scientific processes of inquiry also result in technological advances and products that improve our quality of life.

It’s important for our graduating students to be scientifically literate. Scientifically literate people are interested in, and understand, the world around them. They are able to discuss issues rationally, are sceptical and questioning of the claims made by others, can identify and investigate questions and draw evidence-based conclusions. They can make informed decisions about the environment and their own health and well-being.

What went wrong?

For too many high-school students, science has become a litany of memorising uninteresting, difficult-to-understand ideas and attempting to answer numerous, confusing multiple-choice questions on exam papers. The joy and wonder of scientific inquiry has been lost.

A comprehensive review of Australian science education a decade ago painted a worrying picture of science learning, especially in secondary schools. Many students were disappointed with their high school science because what they were taught was neither relevant nor engaging.

Traditional chalk and talk teaching, copying notes and “cookbook” practical lessons, offered little challenge or excitement to students.

Somehow we need to ignite students’ innate curiosity and engage them in interesting and relevant inquiry. The new Australian science curriculum provides a basis for change but it will not itself bring about the change that is required.


Doing better

Several organisations in Australia are developing strategies to tackle the issues.

With funding from the Australian government, the Australian Academy of Science has undertaken a secondary school program called Science By Doing.

Part of the program involves developing innovative curriculum units that use exciting digital learning segments. The first unit uses the context of water. We all know water is an important issue for Australia.

But the real world is brought to the classroom through engaging film clips in which scientists share their latest research and indigenous elders explain the cultural importance of water. Segments from entertaining ABC television programs are also used.

The course unit was trialed in Australian schools last year and students, on the whole, loved it. But more importantly they learned much about chemistry and the significance of the water cycle. They also learned how to tackle and discuss an important issue our community faces. In other words, the science they experienced was relevant.

While the fall in student interest in science is disturbing, there is hope. With relatively small funding – small when you consider the total education budget – we can develop further innovative curriculum units that capture students’ imagination and help them learn better.

Coupled with a well-researched professional learning approach the present situation can be well and truly turned around. Students can rediscover the joy of science.

This is the eighth part of The State of Science. To read the other instalments, follow the links below.

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