A great time to be involved in science

| November 30, 2015

Dr Ken Silburn recently won the Prime Minister’s science prize for excellence in teaching. To kick off our Innovation forum, he explains why we need to promote a STEM curriculum at our schools.

The recent release of the report Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future by the Australian Chief Scientist outlines the desperate need for Australia to invest in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) education and prepare our workforce and industries to embrace new technologies. It is blunt, but clear. Australia must re-establish itself as a clever country or loose the edge in competing in the global economy. This will not happen overnight, but it needs to start with reforms in education.

The Chief Scientist also outlines the requirement of a workforce that possess a high level of STEM literacy in addition to specialist STEM skills. If this is to happen, then we need to focus our attention on promoting a STEM curriculum at school and STEM careers.

If forecasts by companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers are accurate, then Australia will see a massive change in our workforce brought about by computerisation and technology.  PwC estimate that 44 per cent of current Australian jobs are at high risk of being affected by computerisation and technology over the next 20 years. The pressure is now on to ensure that our future workforce is adequately trained and prepared to work in STEM related industries.

Science education had a major boost in the 1960s with the excitement surrounding the Apollo Missions to the Moon. Those of us old enough may remember the science textbooks produced by Harry Messel and the influx of science equipment that arrived at schools. But that was in the 1960s.  With the national curriculum and a focus on STEM we now have the opportunity to assess the appropriateness of our curriculum for our students and make the changes required.

For many reasons the proportion of students studying science for years 11 and 12 have declined. Currently the number of students studying STEM courses in the senior years of high school is the lowest in 20 years. This may be due to the lack of qualified STEM teachers, the view of science careers, or the way that science is taught.  Whatever the reason, students generally do not see the relevance to their future.

There are some great examples of schools and programs that are currently in place that address this need. The NSW Department of Education is focussing on programs to allow STEM initiatives to operate across schools. Other programs such as the iSTEM (Invigorating Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) program allow high school students interested in science a chance to meet other like minded students and to participate in enrichment activities normally not available through normal school programs. Activities include visits and workshops with the Powerhouse Museum, the Australian Museum, University of Western Sydney, NSW University, ANSTO and the Sydney Observatory.  Students also have the opportunity to participate in the US Space Academy Program. The success of the iSTEM program was recognised by the Australian Institute of Physics with the 2014 NSW Physics Outreach Award.

This is a great time to be involved in science and an even greater time to be involved in science education.

Ken Silburn

Ken Silburn is a science educator and communicator. He is the President of LAZSTA (Metropolitan South West Science Teachers Association), Head Teacher Science at Casula High School, and Coordinator and founder of the iSTEM (Invigorating Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) project delivering science enrichment programs for high school science students. Ken is a graduate of the University of Wollongong and the Honeywell US Space Academy for Educators Program. Ken was the recipient of the 2013 NSW State Award for Innovation in Science Teaching, the 2014 NSW Australian Academy of Physics Award for Community Outreach and more recently the Prime Minister’s Science Award for Excellence in Science Teaching. The citation from the Awards reads: “Fifteen years ago Casula High School was just an average state school in Sydney’s south-western suburbs with just eight students doing science at year 12. But something extraordinary has happened. Two-thirds of Year 11 and 12 students now choose science subjects and they are performing well above the state average. The transformation is largely due to the work of Dr Ken Silburn, the head of science at Casula. Ken has transformed the way his students engage with science, through extension programs, interactive and hands-on activities, and a great deal of encouragement. In the classroom, Ken focuses on what his students are most interested in or fascinated by, and makes it a big part of his science teaching curriculum. A highlight is the use of space science as a core element of the classes. For his leadership in science teaching, Dr Ken Silburn receives the 2015 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.”