UNE leads contribution to international science education project

Published 19 November 2012

An Australia-wide survey led from the University of New England is contributing to the international Interest and Recruitment in Science (IRIS) project funded by the European Commission.

A team of researchers from six Australian universities, led by UNE’s Dr Terry Lyons and Dr Frances Quinn, surveyed 3,500 first-year science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students at 30 universities around the nation. Supported by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, the project aimed to find out what motivates students to take STEM courses and whether their experiences of these courses meet expectations.

The project report, Starting Out in STEM, was published last week. It can be downloaded from www.une.edu.au/simerr.

The survey found a high level of satisfaction with many aspects of STEM courses, but also some criticism of the quality of teaching – particularly in a number of Group of Eight (G8) universities. Only 46 per cent of students agreed that they received timely feedback from lecturers, and just over 50 per cent that their lecturers cared whether they learnt anything or not. Students from a number of G8 universities were among the most critical of these aspects of teaching.

UNE students in the sciences were more positive than most – a result consistent with the high level of satisfaction with science courses by UNE graduates reported in The Good Universities Guide for 2013. While UNE is one of only eight Australian universities awarded top ranking (“five stars”) by the Guide for teaching quality across all its courses, it is one of only six universities awarded top ranking for teaching quality in the sciences.

“The study had a particular focus on the decisions and experiences of young women in male-dominated STEM courses such as physics, IT and engineering,” Dr Lyons said. “This is because Australia does not rank highly among OECD countries in the proportion of STEM university qualifications awarded to women.

“We found no evidence, however, that females in these courses felt discriminated against by male students or lecturers. In general, females were as positive as males about most aspects of these courses and did not appear to be adversely affected by their minority status.”

He said data from the survey indicated that the most potent motivation for taking STEM courses was personal interest – sustained by good secondary-school teachers who highlight the practical applications of learning. “Consistent with other studies, we found that teachers were considered by students to be more important in their decisions than parents, friends, siblings or careers advisers,” Dr Lyons said. “Females in particular tended to regard personal encouragement from teachers as having been important in their decisions.”

The authors of Starting Out in STEM are Terry Lyons, Frances Quinn and Nadya Rizk (UNE), Neil Anderson (James Cook University), Peter Hubber and Jan West, (Deakin University), John Kenny (University of Tasmania), Len Sparrow (Curtin University), and Sue Wilson (Australian Catholic University). For more information contact Dr Terry Lyons at terry.lyons@une.edu.au or on (02) 6773 2983.