School science decline linked to increased subject choice

Published 15 February 2010

chemistryDespite the current serious decline in the proportion of senior high-school students taking science subjects, there has been no corresponding decline in students’ enjoyment of science, their appreciation of its importance to society, or their interest in science careers.

This is one of the most unexpected findings in a report, published this week, titled Choosing Science: Understanding the declines in senior high school science enrolments. The report is based on a major study, commissioned by the National Centre of Science, ICT and Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia (SiMERR) at the University of England, that involved around 590 teachers and 3,800 students throughout the country.

Supported by the Australian Science Teachers Association, the study found that the steady proportional declines in physics, chemistry and biology enrolments over the past two decades were unlikely to be due to declining student interest in science. Rather, it concluded that the declines were part of a wider phenomenon that had seen similar falls in many established subjects – including economics, geography, history, and advanced mathematics. One of the factors most likely to be influencing this trend, the report concludes, is students’ responses to the increasing number of subject options available.

One of the authors of the report, Dr Terry Lyons, Associate Director of SiMERR, said that this increase in subject options had been accompanied by an increase in the availability of tertiary courses leading on from these “newer” school subjects. “Many universities have responded by broadening the scope of their courses,” Dr Lyons said. “At the same time, they have also diluted the strategic value of physics and chemistry as pre-requisites for many courses.”

Dr Lyons and the co-author of the report, Dr Frances Quinn, also found that many students could not picture themselves as scientists, and did not have much idea about the wide range of science careers available – a finding that Dr Lyons said had “all sorts of implications for educators”. In addressing this finding, the report recommends “that Federal, State and Territory education authorities, professional teacher associations and science organisations work together to develop adequately funded, sustainable and coordinated strategies to improve links between school science and scientists in university and industry settings”. “The strategies should have a particular focus on authentic, research-based science experiences both inside and outside the classroom,” it says, “and on creating greater awareness among Year 10 students of the variety and scope of science-related careers.”

Among its other recommendations, the report says that girls should be encouraged “to have greater confidence in their science learning and ability to achieve”, and that “education authorities and other stakeholders should initiate further research to investigate why students in rural schools have less positive attitudes to school science than their city peers”.

With the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) due to release its new draft science curriculum on the 22nd of February, the study’s confirmation that school science has failed to engage a sufficiently wide range of students is of particular significance. The report recommends that, given the increased competition from other subjects, it is all the more important “that ACARA, Federal, State and Territory education authorities and other relevant stakeholders ensure the new National Science Curriculum reflects teachers’ and students’ recommendations for increasing enrolments by making school science learning experiences more interesting, practical and personally relevant”.