Election time: Science Q&A – education

By Alison Campbell 08/11/2011

The Science Media Centre has just released its ‘Science Q&A’ – a set of questions put to all main political parties. As a voter I’m interested in all the responses, but today I’ll wear my science educator’s hat & look at the responses to this question:

Not only does New Zealand have problems persuading young people to study science at university, it has difficulty persuading graduate researchers to eventually settle in this country. How will your party make science and technology more attractive to students looking ahead to tertiary education, and what can be done to encourage them to work in New Zealand?

I’ll look specifically at the education bit, as that’s really where I sit & anyway, I’m sure that research scientists will have plenty to say on the ‘encouraging students to work in NZ’ front. (For those not familiar with my background, I’m a science educator/communicator first & foremost, & that’s where my research interests lie as well.) Responses are in alphabetical order, so that means we get to read the ACT party’s thoughts first. The party feels that

To the extent that primary and secondary schools are failing to attract students into science, it is a failure of the entire system affecting almost every student. We believe it more likely that more science friendly schools, teachers and curricula will evolve in a more decentralised system.

This leads me to wonder if the party’s spokesperson has actually looked at the NZ science curriculum… and about their attitude towards a nationally agreed standards (& no, I don’t mean ‘National Standards’).

That is, a system where the funding follows the child and teachers and principals have more autonomy about how they run their schools. For example, in the Canadian province in Alberta where anybody can set up a special character or charter school there are now thirteen such schools including the Calgary Science School which takes a scientific approach to learning.

One wonders why they didn’t also cite the decentralised system of the US, where science teaching is distinctly uneven in quality & where scientists and science teachers are constantly fighting efforts to have creationism taught in the science classroom. (Actually, come to think of it, we already have ‘special character’ schools that do just that.) This is not a good model for New Zealand education. I’m afraid I would have to give ACT a ‘not achieved’ for this item of assessment.

Next, the Greens:

[We] need to support secondary school teachers to inspire the next generation of scientists among us. Research shows that enthusiastic teachers do make a difference. Teachers need to have the time and energy to be creative in pupil-focused activity rather than burdened with administrative demands. To address this we support initiatives like after six years of service, teachers, including early childhood education teachers, will be entitled to a sabbatical leave for one year at 80% of their salary.

As an ex-(very ex-) secondary school teacher, & someone who works a lot with current secondary teachers, I can certainly emphathise with this one. One of the big issues for teachers is the need to keep current in terms of subject knowledge – hard to do when your hands are full with the demands of teaching, pastoral care, administration (including the ever-present assessment) & planning for next year or next term. In addition, the amount of money available to fund professional development is very small; just getting funding to go to the 2-yearly subject teachers’ conferences can be difficult. My experiences with teachers who’ve been lucky enough to get Royal Society teacher fellowships showed me the huge difference in drive, energy, & general enthusiasm made by a year out of the classroom, working with scientists and thinking about how to translate what they were doing back into the classroom. These teachers were returning to the classroom able to help their students learn about real, current science, & often to involve them in doing that science – how better to enthuse those kids? The downside, of course, is cost… The benefits to teachers & students would be signficant – but so would the costs of ensuring sufficient staff to cover such sabbatical leave (even at 80% of salary). So the actual budget for this would bear careful examination.

From Labour:

The years immediately following graduation are critical to consolidate the careers of scientists. With the removal of post-doctoral scholarships in 2010, New Zealand is at risk of losing hundreds of our best brains overseas. Labour will reinstate post-doctoral fellowships for recent PhD graduates, scaling up to a cost of $6 million a year, so they are supported into research careers in New Zealand instead of overseas. Labour will also establish a scheme for better funding [for] brilliant scientists. This funding will be portable to allow scientists to take it to the most appropriate institution, purchase equipment, recruit staff and attract other world leaders in the field to NZ. Labours full science and innovation policy, with more details on science in education, will be released shortly.

So not much there on the wider area of education, apart from the comments on post-doc scholarships – what I’d like to know is their take on encouraging our young students to study science in the first place. (Reinstatement of scholarships for top doctoral students would be good too…) And their support for science teachers in schools, and for education in general. Overall, a disappointing answer. (And, just to state any possible conflicts of interest – I’m normally a Labour voter.)

And National:

The attraction of science and technology for young people is directly linked to how it fits in with how they see their futures. The more important high technology industries are to our economy, the more people will want to work in the sector. Greater opportunities will lead to greater interest.

Not necessarily… Science & high-tech industries are important to our economy now (I mean, the idea’s not new; Sir Paul Callaghan has been pointing this out for some considerable time) & yet we don’t see students flooding into the sciences. And across the ditch, back in 2006 The Australian was pointing out that there was a serious shortfall in geology graduates, compared to the demand from industry. The Australian noted (my emphasis) that:

Geoscience is fundamentally important to Australia’s future in three ways. First, geological resources drive a large percentage of the nation’s economy. Second, sustainable development, encompassing environmental protection, depends heavily on geoscience. Third, geoscientists produce most of the data required to understand climate change.

And yet at the same time the number of students taking relevant subjects was in decline & geology departments around the country were closing. It would appear that economic significance is insufficient to drive student demand.

More from National:

We‘re developing five new vocational pathways for young people through a partnership between industry training organisations and the education sector. They will clarify the existing array of options so students and their families can see the connection between what students learn at school and what industries it could lead them to.

Now this, I see the sense in. Many year 13 students don’t go on to university study (& of those who do, probably most don’t go into the sciences.) We’re not particularly good at promoting alternatives – or at providing good subject advice for those students who have other career pathways in mind. I mean, a student might think that ‘getting into’ a manufacturing industry (or the hospitality industry, or…) is a good future, but back in year 11, what sort of program planning is available? Because that’s when they should be doing their subject planning, & the subjects need to be relevant. So the statement that

[M]anufacturing and technology is one of those pathways. The vocational pathways will describe the learning, and the assessment standards valued by broad sectors of industry. They will also include a career and study map, which will show young people potential occupations and future study options

is a good one. Of course, schools – and industries – are going to need support in setting this up, so again the devil will be well & truly in the detail. And of course we still need people doing the basic science and engineering research that will underpin these industries of the future, so those educational pathways also need reinforcement – we need more of those uni-bound year 13 students going into the sciences, not fewer, & that sort of change needs to begin much earlier in the schooling system. So far, neither major party’s said much about that…

0 Responses to “Election time: Science Q&A – education”

  • “we need more of those uni-bound year 13 students going into the sciences, not fewer”

    But do we really? Without the government boosting the industries that employ such people, we could end up with more scientifically trained people than we need. And National’s focus at least seems to be on training people for jobs that exist.
    We already have graduates with PhD’s in science complaining there are no jobs in NZ so do we need more scientifically trained people?
    Having said that I’m all for developing a greater appreciation and understanding of science amongst school leavers. A more scientifically literate and less gullible society has got to be a good thing

  • Well, their current focus might be, but their response above might (just might) give one hope that they could boost science in the future.
    And as you say, even continuing with just 1-2 science papers has got to enhance their science literacy…