Despite concerns about senior science enrolments, there is an unquenchable thirst for science in our young. At the Monash Science Centre, they are concocting formulas for introducing more children to science that are making a big bang in education. Peter Goldie reports.
A dearth of research and development funding in Australia; the salaries and status of scientists lagging behind other parts of the world; scientists failing to promote themselves and their work. This is the usual litany about the place of science in society and education.
For many academics, this is at best a frustrating part-truth and at worst a self-fulfilling refrain that distracts from the greater truth: science has as great an impact in the early 21st century as ever before. One person with a long-term view on the place of science in education is Professor Dick Gunstone. Professor of science and technology education in Monash University's Education faculty, he says our current perception of science is heavily flavoured by transient theories.
Central to society
"The fundamental issue is that science is both central to current society and crucial to future developments in our economic prosperity, our social structure, our standard of living," he says. "When it comes to talking about the teaching of science, we come to a complex area, and I don't see any value in teacher-bashing.
"It's true to say, however, that primary school science teachers were recruited from that group of high school trainee teachers who were "refugees from maths and science", he concedes. "One of the big problems is that only 5 per cent of trainee teachers are coming in with maths and physical sciences. That's the real issue."
It is an issue the Monash Science Centre has been addressing directly on state, national and world stages since its inception in 1993.
The brainchild of Professor Pat Vickers-Rich of the Earth Sciences department (noted Monash dinosaur-hunter and discoverer, stager of international exhibitions and Californian-bred science addict), the centre plugs young children directly into the science loop by tapping into their curiosity and getting them involved in working research.
"The reason the science centre got started in the early '90s was that a group of people thought science was being trivialised in a lot of places, and one group that was being particularly under-serviced were the primary students," Professor Vickers-Rich recalls. "If there is nothing to follow on from the type of science exhibit where you push a lot of buttons and watch things happen, we really aren't getting across the power of science and the tools it gives you."
The centre was started as a place where primary and secondary students could get together with scientists who were doing research with different kinds of activities tied to federal and state curriculum and standards frameworks.
The centre's work is catching on like wildfire. At any one time, it will circulate educational kits in Australian schools, make school visits, stage exhibitions both for its Monash centre and for Australian and international tours, assist editors of science publications, and engage in talks with state and federal science and education bureaucracies.
In less than a decade, the Monash Science Centre has grown to an organisation involving more than 50 people in various programs and nine full and part-time staff. Last year 30,000 Victorian students attended its programs, while a million people visited its exhibitions in Australia, the US and South America.
"Our Russian dinosaur exhibition travelled from late 1993 to 1997, and two-and-a-half million people saw it," she says. "That's pretty significant - a lot of people to go through a specialist exhibition."
But Professor Vickers-Rich has a more fundamental reason than entertainment for spreading the word of science.
"It is entertaining to a certain extent, but it is entertaining with a purpose - getting people to understand something fundamental about science," she says. "It opens the doors to logical thinking, to giving people the power to make decisions about complicated things.
"We should be empowering our kids to make decisions about pollution controls or whether we are going to have big families, or what our attitude to genetically modified medicine is ... these are real issues; they are scientific issues, and they are moral issues.
"If you don't have the power yourself to make those decisions or to evaluate what somebody is saying, whether scientist or politician, you are pretty weak, and it meansyou are vulnerable to other peoples' opinions."
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