Five challenges for science in Australian primary schools

Here is an article I’ve just had published in The Conversation. It’s rocked a few boats and there is some robust discussion in the comments.

Five challenges for science in Australian primary schools

Simon Crook, University of Sydney and Rachel Wilson, University of Sydney

Science education has been in the spotlight after federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne recently proposed to make science and maths education compulsory through to year 12.

While this is welcome news, such a proposal needs to include long-term plans for improving the status of science in primary schools and ensuring teachers have the requisite support. Here we outline some of the challenges faced as the new science curriculum is implemented across the country.

The Australian curriculum is not a ‘national curriculum’

Many people in education are somewhat bemused that the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s Australian Curriculum is not national.

Every state and territory is implementing the curriculum in their own way. This is most noticeable in NSW. Primary school teachers have to follow the NSW syllabus, which combines an additional “technology” component along with science.

Primary Connections – one size does not fit all

Primary Connections is a program developed to support the teaching of the Australian science curriculum. It has been overtly promoted and endorsed by the Australian Academy of Science plus the science panel on Q&A in 2014, which included Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, Professor Suzanne Cory and Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt. Schmidt even used some of his Nobel Prize money to support it.

Primary Connections does provide a wealth of ideas, activities, background knowledge and safety considerations. However, it also has several issues.

While Primary Connections is free to all schools via the online platform Scootle, many schools are still spending money to get it via the Primary Connections website, to which the Australian Academy of Science website points all those interested.

Primary Connections is essentially just a bunch of PDFs, which is a long way from an inspiring instructive for teachers to get kids interested in science.

Many schools are also implementing Primary Connections in its entirety, which might not be consistent with their state or territory requirements. This will not allow for a personalised journey into scientific inquiry.

In some states, relying solely on Primary Connections would make a school non-compliant with the requirements of the state syllabus. For example, Primary Connections does not cater for the technology knowledge and skills in the NSW syllabus.

Science is a high-anxiety, low-confidence subject for many primary teachers

As a primary school teacher once told us, “primary teachers are expert generalists”. Most lack the training and experience to teach science, and a deep understanding of the subject and experimentation. Many feel under-confident in science.

Teachers spend less time on subjects they’re less confident in, like science.
USArmyRDEcom/Flickr, CC BY

The declines in science participation are longstanding and will have fed into the teaching profession. So, increasingly, teachers will not have studied science at upper secondary school or university. Only around 50% of teachers teaching science in 2013 had received training in teaching methods for science.

There are also issues in secondary schools. One in five teachers in science classes teaches out of their area of specialisation.

The introduction of the new curriculum adds to the challenges teachers face. It may lead some to cling onto any resource they find – even if it does not cover all of the curriculum needs.

Time demands on primary schools

When primary teachers face disruptions due to impromptu assemblies, excursions (reported as causing serious disruption in Australian schools in particular) and extra-curricular activities, they have to choose what to chop from their teaching. This has been demonstrated to impact most on subjects that the teachers themselves are least comfortable with. This is traditionally mathematics, where teachers are under-confident and often have limited content knowledge.

While mathematics is assessed in NAPLAN, there is currently no comprehensive national assessment of science. Thus, despite (or perhaps because of) the new emphasis on science, science is at risk of being the new sacrificial lamb of choice.

NSW mandates that 6-10% of curriculum time is spent on science in primary schools – that’s 1.5 to 2.5 hours a week. There is substantial variation in the time devoted to science across states and schools. Many schools are operating on only one hour a week, which could easily become 45 minutes when you factor in “pack-up time” at the end of the day and other interruptions.

Primary school science teaching survey, 2014.
Author provided

Specialist teachers an unlikely dream

Ian Chubb recently wrote about aspiring to something magnificent with science in Australia. He said:

Every primary school ought to have a science teacher with continually updated knowledge.

This is a noble dream. However, it also raises several issues.

First, there are enough problems recruiting specialist science teachers into secondary, let alone primary schools. And what happens to those students already in school during the hiatus to train up specialist primary science teachers?

Second, in a large primary school, only one science specialist would not be enough. They would not be able to get to every class for the recommended curriculum time. Teaching science, as with any subject, is the responsibility of all primary teachers. With science being somewhat neglected historically in pre-service training, how are we going to train up all of the incumbents?

There are some wonderful primary teachers out there who openly admit they need help with teaching science. However, national, state and school structures currently conspire to make this more difficult and less enjoyable than it should be.

To benefit the national economy, we need to raise the profile of science and develop a long-term plan to nurture it in schools and industry. Educational attainment in science is linked to national economic growth and competitiveness. These high stakes prompted the UK Royal Society to develop a 20-year plan and a follow-up UK government strategy.

Here, Australia’s Chief Scientist has outlined the need for such planning. Central to this is the need to support teachers in schools, because, in the words of Ian Chubb:

… every child needs to love science to thrive.

The Conversation

Simon Crook is PhD Candidate – Physics Education Research at University of Sydney.
Rachel Wilson is Senior Lecturer – Research Methodology / Educational Assessment & Evaluation at University of Sydney.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

A new website shows how global warming could change your town

By Leanne Webb, CSIRO and Penny Whetton, CSIRO

What will Australia look like in 2050? Even if we significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as under an intermediate scenario, Melbourne’s annual average climate could look more like that of Adelaide’s, and Adelaide’s climate could be more like that of Griffith in New South Wales.

These changes are captured in a new Climate Analogues tool released by CSIRO today. It’s not just capital cities – you can find climate analogues for more than 400 towns around Australia, under various climate scenarios.

Eastern Australian coastal sites could see a climate shift to those currently typical of locations hundreds of kilometres north along the coast. Sydney’s climate could resemble that of Port Macquarie, and Coffs Harbour’s climate resembling that of the Gold Coast (by 2050; intermediate emissions).

Towns in major inland agricultural areas could have climates typical of inland areas further north, such as Griffith’s climate shifting to that of Cobar, a town around 300 km north (by 2050; intermediate emissions).

The change in climate is much greater by 2090 and under a high emissions scenario. In this case Melbourne’s climate could then be more like that of Dubbo, Griffith’s more like that of Bourke (600 km away), Sydney’s more like Brisbane, and Coffs Harbour’s could be like Mackay.

Sydney could end up with a warmer climate like Brisbane’s.
Andrea Ferrera/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Australia’s climate future

In January this year CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology released updated projections for Australia’s climate in the 21st century. All regions in Australia are expected to get warmer with, in general, inland regions warming at faster rates than the coast.

By 2030, Australian annual average temperature is projected to increase by 0.6-1.3C above the climate of 1986-2005 with little difference between emissions scenarios.

By 2050, the warming is around 0.7-2.1C for low emissions, 1.0-2.5C for intermediate emissions, and 1.5-3.0C for high emissions (the ranges expressed here indicate results from different model simulations).

By 2090, Australian average temperature is projected to increase by 0.6 to 1.7C for low emissions, 1.4-2.7C for intermediate emissions, and 2.8 to 5.1C for high emissions.

Projections for rainfall vary across the Australian continent, where southern areas are expected to get drier, while for northern areas rainfall may increase, decrease or remain the same in future. The magnitude of rainfall change is larger later in the century and for high emissions.

Coffs Harbour in NSW could end up with a climate like Mackay’s in Queensland, a thousand kilometres further north.
Luc Jamet/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

What will your town’s climate be like?

One way of showing this change is by using climate “analogues”. These are places that currently experience the climate another place will see in the future.

Using analogues we can explore questions such as “What will the future climate of Melbourne be like in the year 2050 under a high emissions scenario?” or “What will Perth be like in a climate that’s 2C warmer and 10% drier?”.

These analogues are built on the most up-to-date set of climate projections for Australia, and use the approach we developed for a previous discussion about Australia’s future climate.

To find analogues, we first need to specify what climate scenario we’re looking at. In the tool these scenarios include:

  • three time periods (2030, 2050, or 2090)
  • emissions scenarios (low, intermediate, or high)
  • differing regional results from global climate models (best or “least hot and wettest”, worst or “hottest and driest”, and most likely or “maximum consensus” of models).

Alternatively we can specify an amount of temperature and rainfall change, regardless of year, emissions or climate model results, and let the website generate matching towns.

The website then finds a matching town based on average rainfall and average maximum temperature.

For example, in 2090, under high emissions and maximum model consensus, Melbourne’s future climate matches the current climate in Dubbo, Muswellbrook or Cowra in NSW, Warwick (Qld.), or Gawler (SA) for the climatic characteristics considered by the tool.

Some of Melbourne’s climate analogues for 2090 under a high emissions scenario.
CSIRO

Watch out for the seasonal rains

This simple approach to analogues works well with current and future climates which are broadly similar in annual maximum temperature and rainfall distribution. However, it is less appropriate when rain at the different locations falls at different times of the year.

For example, by only considering annual rainfall totals, the Sydney climate could match that of current day Perth by 2090 under an intermediate emissions scenario and the hottest and driest case.

However, unlike Sydney, Perth gets most of its rainfall in winter, so it doesn’t make a good match for Sydney. By using the climate analogues’ “rainfall seasonality” adjustment we can set how much rain falls in the summer.

Similarly, temperature varies with the seasons in different ways for different places, due to differences in latitude and proximity to the coast. So we can set how much temperature varies between summer and winter.

For instance, Bendigo is an analogue town for Hobart in 2090 under a high emissions scenario (4C warmer and 10% drier), but Hobart is on the water, while Bendigo is inland. A better analogue may therefore be Port Lincoln (SA).

Climate analogues can be useful for a number of purposes: agriculture, urban planning, or natural resource management. However there are some things that they can’t tell us: frost days, solar radiation, soils and other local climate influences. They can help us start to imagine what the future can look like, but we’d strongly caution against their direct use in decision-making where a more detailed assessment is advised.

This article was co-authored by Tim Bedin, former Technical Scientist at CSIRO.

This article is the first in a short series on climate change in Australia, coinciding with the release of new climate websites by CSIRO.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Six ways Australia’s education system is failing our kids

This article was originally published on The Conversation(written by my co-superviser Rachel Wilson et al.

By Rachel Wilson, University of Sydney; Bronwen Dalton, University of Technology, Sydney, and Chris Baumann

Amid debates about budget cuts and the rising costs of schools and degrees, there is one debate receiving alarmingly little attention in Australia. We’re facing a slow decline in most educational standards, and few are aware just how bad the situation is getting.

These are just six of the ways that Australia’s education system is seriously failing our kids.

1. Australian teens are falling behind, as others race ahead

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey tests the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in more than 70 economies worldwide. And it shows that Australian 15-year-olds’ scores on reading, maths and scientific literacy have recorded statistically significant declines since 2000, while other countries have shown improvement.

Although there has been much media attention on falling international ranks, it is actually this decline in real scores that should hit the headlines. That’s because it means that students in 2000 answered substantially more questions correctly than students in 2012. The decline is equivalent to more than half a year of schooling.

Our students are falling behind: three years behind students from Shanghai in maths and 1½ years behind in reading.

In maths and science, an average Australian 15-year-old student has the problem-solving abilities equivalent to an average 12-year-old Korean pupil.

An international assessment of school years 4 and 8 shows that Australian students’ average performance is now below that of England and the USA: countries that we used to classify as educationally inferior.

The declining education standards are across all ability levels. Analysis of PISA and NAPLAN suggests that stagnation and decline are occurring among high performing students as well as low performers.

2. Declining participation in science and maths

It has been estimated that 75% of the fastest growing occupations require science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills and knowledge.

The importance of STEM is acknowledged by industry and business. Yet there are national declines in Australian participation and attainment in these subjects. We are also among the bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 34 nations on translation of education investment to innovation, which is highly dependent upon STEM.

Fewer than one in ten Australian students studied advanced maths in year 12 in 2013. In particular, there has been a collapse in girls studying maths and science.

A national gender breakdown shows that just 6.6% of girls sat for advanced mathematics in 2013; that’s half the rate for boys, and represents a 23% decline since 2004. In New South Wales, a tiny 1.5% of girls take the trio of advanced maths, physics and chemistry.

Maths is not a requirement at senior secondary level in NSW, Victoria and Western Australia, although it is compulsory in South Australia, and to a small extent in Queensland and the Northern Territory. In NSW, the requirement for Higher School Certificate (HSC) maths or science study was removed in 2001. The national curriculum also makes no requirement for maths or science study after Year 10.

Australia is just about the only developed nation that does not make it compulsory to study maths in order to graduate from high school.

A recent report by the Productivity Commission found almost one-quarter of Australians are capable of only basic mathematics, such as counting. Many universities now have to offer basic (school level) maths and literacy development courses to support students in their study. These outcomes look extremely concerning when we review participation and achievement in maths and science internationally.

3. Australian education is monolingual

In 2013, the proportion of students studying a foreign language is at historic lows. For example in NSW, only 8% studied a foreign language for their HSC, the lowest percentage ever recorded.

In NSW, the number of HSC students studying Chinese in 2014 was just 798 (635 of which were students with a Chinese background), whereas a decade ago it was almost double that number, with 1,591.

The most popular beginner language in NSW was French, with 663 HSC students taking French as a beginner in 2013. These numbers are extremely small when you consider that the total number of HSC students in NSW: more than 75,000.

These declines, which are typical of what has happened around the country, have occurred at a time when most other industrialised countries have been strengthening their students’ knowledge of other cultures and languages, in particular learning English.

English language skills are becoming a basic skill around the world. Monolingual Australians are increasingly competing for jobs with people who are just as competent in English as they are in their own native language – and possibly one or two more.

4. International and migrant students are actually raising standards, not lowering them

There are many who believe that Australian education is being held back by our multicultural composition and high proportion of migrant students. This could not be further from the truth. In the most recent PISA assessment of 15 year olds, Australian-born students’ average English literacy score was significantly lower than the average first-generation migrant students’ score, and not significantly different from foreign-born students.

The proportion of top performers was higher for foreign-born (14%) and first-generation students (15%) than for Australian-born students (10%).

Students from Chinese, Korean and Sri Lankan backgrounds are the highest performers in the NSW HSC. The top performing selective secondary schools in NSW now have more than 80% of students coming from non-English speaking backgrounds.

5. You can’t have quality education without quality teachers

While there are many factors that may contribute to teacher quality, the overall academic attainment of those entering teaching degrees is an obvious and measurable component, which has been the focus of rigorous standards in many countries.

An international benchmarking study indicates that Australia’s teacher education policies are currently falling well short of high-achieving countries where future teachers are recruited from the top 30% of the age cohort.

In Australia between 1983 and 2003, the standard intake was from the top 26% to 39%. By 2012/2013, less than half of Year 12 students receiving offers for places in undergraduate teacher education courses had ATAR scores in the top 50% of their age cohort.

Teacher education degrees also had the highest percentage of students entering with
low ATAR scores, and the proportion of teacher education entrants with an ATAR of less than 50 nearly doubled over the past three years. We cannot expect above-average education with below-average teachers.

6. Early learning participation is amongst the lowest in the developed world

While Australia has recently lifted levels of investment in early childhood education, this investment has not been reflected in high levels of early childhood participation. In Australia, just 18% of 3 year olds participated in early childhood education, compared with 70% on average across the OECD. In this respect, we rank at 34 out of 36 OECD and partner countries.

Australia also ranks at 22 out of 37 on the OECD league table that measures the total investment across education as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.

While low levels of expenditure and participation curtail any system, there is more negative impact from a lack of investment in early childhood than there would be from a lack of funding further up the educational chain. Nobel prize winner James Heckmann has shown how investment in early childhood produces the greatest returns to society.

What to do?

Funding is a critical issue, and not just in terms of what you spend, but also how you spend it. Research suggests spending on early childhood, quality teaching and core curriculum have the greatest returns on investment.

There is also growing evidence to suggest that a segregated schooling system – for example, socio-economically or academically selective schools – is counterproductive and restricts social mobility. High-performing countries have school systems on a far more level playing field than Australia.

We need a long-term plan across education sectors: from early childhood, to schools, universities and TAFE, which includes plans for supporting and strengthening teacher education in all those sectors.

We also need a louder public conversation about Australian education, and lobbying to shift how we value and invest in education.

When Germany was shocked by its first performance on the 2000 PISA assessment, it started a national conversation that saw education on the front page of newspapers for the next two years. Germany’s education has been improving ever since.

If Australia wants to build a strong and competitive economy, we need fewer front page articles about budget cuts, and more on reform and investment in education.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Three Scientists Receive Australia’s Highest Accolade

In the 2015 Australia Day Honours list, three of the five people appointed Companions (AC) of the Order of Australia, the highest accolade, were medical scientists:

Professor Jeremy Robert Chapman OAM

For eminent service to medicine, particularly in the areas of clinical and biomedical research, to the development of ethical policy and practices for organ donation, acquisition and transplantation, and to renal medicine organisations and publications.

Professor Brendan Scott Crabb

For eminent service to medical science as a prominent researcher of infectious diseases, particularly malaria, and their impact on population health in developing nations, as an advocate, mentor and administrator, and through fostering medical research nationally and internationally.

Professor John Watson Funder

For eminent service to medicine, particularly to cardiovascular endocrinology, as a renowned researcher, author and educator, to the development of academic health science centres, and to mental illness, obesity, and Indigenous eye-health programs.

If you had to choose 3 scientists to receive awards (Australian or not), who would they be and why?