Australia behind in maths, science education

Sydney, June 5 (IANS) Australia must boost its education to compete with science-focused countries, said a report released Wednesday.

The report by the Australian Council of Learned Academies recommends introducing maths as a compulsory subject throughout high school, stronger prerequisite requirements for university programs that require knowledge of science and maths, and recruiting science Ph.D. graduates into teaching.

Peter Andrews, former Queensland chief scientist, said that Australia must lift its game in the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects to keep up with emerging economies in the Asia Pacific region.

"As China and India build bigger and better knowledge-intensive economies based on soaring numbers of STEM graduates, the proportions of Australian students going into Year 12 physics, chemistry and biology have halved over the last 30 years," said Andrews.

"The proportion of Australians graduating from universities in mathematics and statistics is less than half of the OECD average," he added.

While competitor nations source their trainee teachers from the top 30 or even 10 percent of school graduates, Australian requirements are far more lax, said Andrews.

"If we are going to be competitive in the 21st century, we must have the smartest scientists, and that means we must have the smartest teachers," he said.

Bob Williamson, secretary of Science Policy at the Australian Academy of Science, said Australia could enhance its performance to keep up with countries that are already focused on growing this sector.

"The good news is that it is not too late: while we are falling behind, the gap is still small, and a concerted effort by federal and state governments could reverse the trend and put us near the top again," Williamson said.

"We have to stop the decline in science and maths education and adopt a similar policy, because people in many professions now need to use science both at work and in everyday living," he added.

Challenges for Australia include a lack of urgency in developing a STEM agenda, as well as how teachers are valued in Australian culture, said Russell Tytler, report co-author from Deakin University.

"In our comparison countries, teaching is a high status and attractive occupation and teachers have a strong background in their discipline and focus their professional growth around this. We need to develop strong models of teacher professional learning in discipline subjects," Tytler said.

"Australia performs well on international tests in mathematics and science but we are slipping down the list and also dropping in absolute performance. Too many students do not achieve mathematics and scientific literacy sufficient to participate in work and life as productive citizens," he added.

Martin Westwell, director of the Flinders Centre for Science Education in the 21st Century at Flinders University, added that science education should be meaningful for all young people, and not just those interested in science-related careers.

"This report shows the way to dismantle the pipeline and, through their teachers, developing young people who think about the world in scientific ways, with creativity, problem-solving, flexibility and critical thinking," Westwell said.

"Science will become part of who they are," he added.

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