Primary school science education – is there a winning formula?

Flickr/Discover Science & Engineering

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, released a worrying report earlier this year.

Unhealthy Science? University Natural and Physical Sciences 2002 - 2009/10 revealed the number of students studying “enabling sciences” such as chemistry, mathematics and physics has flatlined.

Chubb was also commissioned to develop a strategy to boost science education. This was sent to the Prime Minister’s office earlier this year, but has not yet been made public.

It comes at a time when Australia has slid down the international rankings in maths and science, going from 8th place in 2003 to 15th in 2009 in maths, and to 10th place in 2009 down from 5th in 2006 for science.

For most people, primary school is the place where early interest in science begins or ends. A student that doesn’t engage with science learning early on is unlikely to continue the subject in high school and into university.

The Conversation spoke with teachers, academics and scientists to get their views on the state of primary science education, and to ask how we might best spark the interest of our young, would-be scientists.

Brian Schmidt, Nobel Prize winner, Australian National University

What’s needed to make primary science education better? How can we engage children with science?

At the primary level, we need to ensure our teachers are comfortable with the curriculum they’re teaching. We have a national curriculum now and that’s great.

But we need to make sure the teachers who teach that curriculum, who are not trained scientists in most cases, are comfortable with what they need to teach.

And teachers need to have techniques and experiments and ways of exciting the kids. That really means having a good professional development system in place. We should look around the country and see what’s working. Because really, what works in one school will probably work in many schools.

Also, most teachers have access to parents who are involved in science one way or another. And those people, especially if you have a confident parent who has the right training, can be called upon to show why science is important; why it’s exciting.

What effect would better primary science education have and why is it important?

Research indicates that if you do a bad job teaching kids science and maths in primary school it’s extraordinarily hard to get them back on track, no matter what you do in secondary school, and in university for that matter.

People have to interact with technology in any job they do now so you really have to get them started in primary. If you don’t, you’ll never really get them technologically literate.

And then, of course, Australia really does need a large number of skilled people. Losing a large fraction of our current population in years prep through six – students who are damned from ever doing anything in science because of a poor primary school experience – is something we can ill afford as a country.

We don’t have enough of these people now, and to continually lose more and more kids from science and maths over the coming generations will create huge problems.

A lot of kids are getting a good start right now but a lot aren’t. It’s really important to do as well as we can on giving everyone a good start to their science and math education. Best of all, it’s a relatively inexpensive thing to do.

From my perspective, it’s a no-brainer. Australia is performing OK right now in education in an absolute sense, but we’re going backwards faster than any other OECD country. We can’t afford to continue in that vein. Turning science education around needs to be a national goal, now.

Where did your own love of science begin?

My father is a biologist. My parents had me when they were undergraduates, so I really got to see my dad evolve as a scientist. That said, within school I had a really good environment which taught science and taught it well.

The teachers were able to use my dad and other parents of children in the class to help with science. And they used to have little science days where we did a bunch of experiments.

I would have been around third or fourth grade when we spent most of a day doing experiments and activities and my friends and I thought these were great.

And it wasn’t just my parents, it was six or seven sets of parents. I remember also in around second grade my dad dragging the entire class out into a river that went past our school in Montana and fishing out all the little animals that lived in the river.

There were about 30 or 40 different things he was able to fish out. That kind of thing was really eye-opening to me – the fact there was all this stuff going on we didn’t know about.

Vaille Dawson, Professor, Science & Mathematics Education Centre, Curtin University

What’s needed to make primary science education better?

It’s worth noting first that Australia categorically has one of the best science education systems in the world. Despite media reports about slipping on international measures, we’re only comparing ourselves to the 65 countries that participate.

PISA [the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment] base their rankings on a single test at one point in time. The countries that do worst on the PISA testing drop out of the ranking system.

But as a developed nation we can always look at ways of improving. With teachers, there’s a need for continual professional development of pre-service teachers and also practising teachers.

Research shows that to have any impact on student achievement, you need at least 30 hours of professional development. There are hardly any programs in the world that actually do this.

Primary Connections, whose funding was stopped last year, was getting close in that it was several days of targeted professional development.

Students are getting a good grounding in science, and related inquiry skills such as questioning and scepticism. In primary science, we’re talking about four-year-olds to 12-year-olds. And in those early years, the focus needs to be on curiosity and immersion in what science is.

Research shows that students are forming their attitudes to science in the upper-primary, lower-secondary years. So once they have an attitude where they think science is too hard, for example, it’s difficult to change that view.

We also have the issue of equity as well. As you go down the socio-economic strata, sadly there’s a firm correlation between the resources available to schools and the students’ socio-economic status.

The other issue outside of school is the public’s perception of the importance of science education. For me, it’s as important as literacy. But there’s almost, dare I say it, an anti-science sentiment in some parts of the community.

What effect would better primary science education have and why is it important?

Many of the big issues Australian society is going to be facing in the future are around science and technology, energy, resources and climate change. All of these require students to engage with science.

Every decision you make, especially in a technological society like our own, harks back to your understanding of science. Students should leave primary school with a positive attitude to science and a grounding in some of the basic concepts.

Kids enjoy science when it’s hands-on. Flickr/martincron

If students turn off science by upper-primary, they are really limiting themselves from a lot of future careers. We find in WA that in a given school district, you might not have a single student able to enter medicine or engineering courses at university because they haven’t studied science in year 11 and 12. It’s not because of a lack of ability.

Without good primary science education, you’re really limiting those students’ future career prospects.

Where did your own love of science begin?

I grew up in a mining town in Tasmania, so I did have a thought I would become a geologist. I had a science teacher who was very encouraging in year seven and eight. In year nine I moved to King Island, and my science teacher there encouraged me to enter a science talent search competition. They gave me a book on astronomy, which I still have.

Then I went on to do a science degree and worked in medical research. Then I became a science teacher, did a masters and a PhD. I realised that as a science teacher I could influence the students I teach, but if I moved into academia, I could influence teachers. So I started to teach pre-service teachers to become primary school teachers.

I truly believe a good society has a responsibility to educate its young people. And part of that is giving them the skills to live their lives and contribute back to society.

Alwyn Powell, winner of the 2005 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools

What’s needed to make primary science education better?

I work in a primary school and it changes – there’s not a single way to better teach students in primary school and engage them with science. There is a seven-year range from very young children to those beginning high school and those children have diverse needs.

In their early childhood, we should be getting kids involved in play with the environment around them, both the biological environment as well as the physical. The students enjoy that and it does two things: increases their vocabulary of the world around them and it also increases science observation skills.

Once upon a time we used to teach observation skills in science, but that got overtaken with data analysis. When children are young, they are curious and interested in their world, especially when they can talk about what they observe and engage with.

We need to be doing more of that and focus less on writing assessments. We don’t need them to be colouring lots of sheets and answering lots of questions just for the sake of assessment. Young children need to enjoy the world to become passionate about it.

With the older children we need more hands-on and minds-on type of science, particularly with chemistry and physics. But we can’t lose sight of biology – that’s also a critical part of science.

What effect would better primary science education have and why is it important?

We have a static or declining number of students studying science in high school, and it’s the decline in students’ interest in science from the primary school to secondary school that causes some concern.

We’re reducing the number of scientists at the same time we’ve got people saying we need more creative science and people who need a scientific background. US President Obama indicated that “jobs requiring at least an associative degree are projected to grow twice as fast as those requiring no college experience”.

Science is not seen as fun and enjoyable any more: we’re too busy focusing on the theoretical side of things. In physics for example, students talk and learn about theories of physics rather than how can we use these, how can we make something and then test it. Doing mathematical calculations ad infinitum has no real relevance or meaning to the students.

The experiences of early scientists are exciting for children and teach basic concepts such as pendulums, paper bags going up chimneys and making models. (Observing pendulum models are now a part of a first year introductory physics course at university.)

Where did your own love of science (teaching) begin?

I’ve moved away from saying I’ve got a passion for teaching science. Now I’ve got more of a passion for learning generally. One of the cornerstones for anyone who’s passionate about learning is a way of knowing through science.

I have worked for more than 30 years in teaching including early and middle school years, in pre-school and in year one. You can see young children are enthused – they want to explore and have discussions about what they find and what it means. And seeing that is just a marvel.

I tell a story about a teacher in year one who was working with the children and they were doing geology. Geology is one of those subjects that is falling off the horizon, but these kids would go into the playground and would look for different sorts of rocks and talk about what they learnt in class.

They were extending their knowledge and understanding, they weren’t being assessed. The children were just actively engaged in their learning process – they wanted to learn.

In the middle years, it’s been great working with the kids on science models, using bits and pieces they can use to explain their understanding. The models can look at how a motor works, for example, or how a merry-go-round works. When they make models of it, they can more readily explain it and they play with it outside of school hours.

Brooke Topelberg, winner of the 2011 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools.

What’s needed to make primary science education better?

The key to science education in primary schools is motivation - for staff and students. An exciting class will inspire both students and teachers to learn and to immerse themselves in the topic.

In my experience, this is best achieved through the provision of outstanding teacher resources and a faculty that is committed to making science exciting in the classroom environment.

Programs such as Primary Connections [see above] have been fantastic in achieving this. Engaging kids with science is easy – teachers just need to remember to always relate science ideas back to their everyday lives.

My best science lessons are the ones where you know students can’t wait to get home to tell their family about their new discovery about how things work, or why things happen in their everyday life experience.

What effect would better primary science education have and why is it important?

A poor experience in primary science will undoubtedly deter further science studies. It is the responsibility of primary educators to pave the way for scientists of the future.

The reverse is also true – an inspiring, quality science education at primary level will give a student the tools and desire to continue their science journey.

The world is a rapidly changing environment and we need inspired scientists to continue the process of discovery across all sectors – from health and medicine to information technology. We should always remember that it all starts with the primary school education experience.

Where did your own love of science (teaching) begin?

I was not always drawn to science and, to be honest, it was not among my favourite subjects at school. I always had an interest in the way things worked, but I was certainly no scientist.

As I progressed in my teaching, I began to explore science education and I realised that what was missing for me – and many of my colleagues – was inspiring resources to make science fun and interesting.

So I guess you could say my love for science was fostered early in my teaching career as I began to see the impact on student outcomes of exciting science classes. For me, the most gratifying thing about my science teaching is when former students go on to pursue science-based careers.

Was science good, bad or ugly for you at primary school? Please leave your comments below.