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Wanted: Science champions

These young migrants and refugees could one day become leading scientists. Sean Perera

The Office of the Chief Scientist has released details of a new “visionary leader” role to champion science with education and industry.

The new role is part of the Chief Scientist’s mission to bolster the key disciplines of science, technology, engineering and maths, with $54 million allocated in the federal budget to help encourage science and maths enrolments.

More than $4 million has been assigned to cover the role of “national maths and science education and industry advisor,” which is being advertised with a five-year term.

It comes after a report on the health of science found science participation in the senior years of school has fallen, and secondary school performance in science literacy is also slipping.

“I think it would be good if we infiltrated every corner of our community with people who were educated in the scientific method and end up using that method in a whole variety of careers,” Chief Scientist Ian Chubb said in a speech in August.

Research conducted by the Chief Scientist’s office has found only 4% of Year 11 and 12 students surveyed thought science was ‘almost always’ useful in everyday life, and 42% thought it would not be useful in their future.

While Ian Chubb seeks a leader to help give science a boost, grassroots activities to inspire future scientists are underway.

Baghdad migrant 19-year old Mays is part of a program called “Opening Doors” that offers young migrants from disadvantaged and refugee backgrounds the opportunity to engage with science in Australia.

“I love science, it makes you think,” said Mays.

Last week Mays, along with around 30 others, visited science centres, museums and Australian National University to see the many aspects of science.

Mays, a single mother with a one-year old child, is currently finishing her high school certificate and hopes to eventually study human gene biology and become a full-time researcher.

It can take two to three generations before young migrants or refugees feel confident enough to really engage with science said Sean Perera, program leader and research fellow at ANU’s Centre for the Public Awareness of Science.

Funding for the Opening Doors project was received from the Federal Government under its “Inspiring Australia” initiative which recommended programs that could foster an appreciation of science and its contribution to solving complex issues.

“Recent psychology research has shown this group of people is very resilient. Rather than being seen as economic deficits that need to be helped, it seems that they have the potential to innovate and contribute,” Dr Perera said.

But Dr Perera said science is sometimes viewed as elitist by young migrants, with many only connecting science studies with becoming a doctor or an engineer.

Research has also shown that the attitudes formed by young people frame the way they will interact with science later in life.

“I would like to see them taking up science at university with a wider view of the options available rather than taking up science with the limited view of being a surgeon or an engineer,” Dr Perera said.

Mays said she doesn’t want to be a doctor, but would like to focus on research and “discovering things”.

“I was really nervous because I didn’t know what university life would be like, but when I did these things it broke that nervousness.”

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