It’s always been about the sky for third-year physics student Kirsten Banks.
“In primary school I was really interested in weather, in meteorology,’’ the 19-year-old says. “But then my grandfather helped me pursue my love of problem-solving, introduced me to engineering, and then when I started looking at university, I really liked the physics curriculum.’’
As the publicity officer for the University of NSW’s Physics Student Society, Banks is not only passionate about science but keen to spread the word that it’s fun. And still with an eye to the sky, she shares her enthusiasm as a tour guide at Sydney Observatory.
Banks — along with 22-year-old physics major Lara Gillian, who is in her honours research year — will graduate into one of the most critically important fields if Australia is to secure its future as an innovative, productive and competitive nation.
When Banks leaves university she can expect to be in high demand and paid more than students who don’t study in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yet, despite an abundance of opportunities, for years it has been a hard sell enticing young Australians into high-level science and mathematics.
“What I want to do is be a science communicator, kind of like how I am at Sydney Observatory at the moment but on a bigger scale to really inspire people into this field — that would be a great dream of mine,’’ says Banks.
But Banks, who studied at Davidson High School at Frenchs Forest in Sydney’s north, is part of a generation of NSW Higher School Certificate students who weren’t fully prepared at secondary school for the challenges of studying physics at a tertiary level.
“The physics curriculum in high school, in my opinion, is very history-based and not very conceptual like it is in university. It was a bit of a shock coming into university and seeing that big difference,’’ she says. “The teachers were awesome at my high school, I had a great physics teacher and the facilities were excellent; it’s just the curriculum itself wasn’t what I expected with the comparison.’’
Renowned quantum physicist Michelle Simmons shone a spotlight last month on the shortcomings of NSW’s 2001 HSC physics curriculum when she delivered an explosive Australia Day address in Sydney.
Simmons, the professor who leads the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology at the UNSW’s school of physics, says when she arrived in Australia from Britain she was “horrified” to learn how the high school physics curriculum had been “feminised” in NSW.
“In other words,” she says, “to make it more appealing to girls, our curricula designers in the bureaucracy substituted formulae with essays. What a disaster.”
The searing critique struck a chord and added to the now deafening alarms being sounded around the country about the urgent need to lift Australia’s education standards.
Chief Scientist Alan Finkel has repeatedly stressed the importance of specialised STEM skills in the workforce for sustaining economic growth.
Advanced sciences, which include biological, physical and mathematical sciences, directly underpinned about 14 per cent of Australia’s economic activity in 2012-13, and when the flow-on effects are taken into account, the STEM fields amount to about 26 per cent of Australia’s economic activity, or $330 billion a year.
Academically high performing school jurisdictions such as Shanghai and Singapore recently streamlined their curriculum to give students the ability to develop a deeper knowledge of subjects such as physics, instead of relying on superficial learning.
NSW education authorities, along with those in the other states, are all too aware of the need for students to compete with their peers in these East Asian academic powerhouses and seek to ensure that Australian students are properly prepared for a constantly evolving jobs landscape.
The NSW HSC sciences courses to be introduced next year will bring a greater focus on mathematical applications in physics and chemistry as a way of describing the concepts involved and a strong emphasis on practical investigations.
Much of the criticism by Simmons was already being addressed as part of a painstaking review.
Tom Alegounarias, the board chairman of the rebadged NSW Education Standards Authority, which replaces the Board of Studies, Teaching and Education Standards, says the curriculum overhaul reflects the value NSW places on students developing deep knowledge of their subjects as the state introduces stronger HSC standards.
“We’re giving depth and expertise the correct weight that we might have lost somewhat in the previous movement towards breadth and integration,’’ Alegounarias says.
The last review of the HSC was 17 years ago.
NSW began developing its new syllabuses in 2014 after federal and state education ministers signed off on the revised senior secondary Australian curriculum.
The process, which has involved responding to extensive consultations, has seen significant changes to the earlier draft versions of the syllabus that went out for comment.
Alegounarias says: “This is a thought-through and much discussed approach and really they’re not in conflict. Integrating areas of learning to have real-life application is one priority but doing that on the basis of depth and expertise is the key priority and they are not inconsistent with each other.”
He says the NSW review reflected on the demands of the modern world and while not unduly futuristic, it looks to the horizon and the educational needs of students.
“Specifically things like statistics are important in mathematics, handling numbers and understanding questions of validity in statistics and what statistics are reliable. These are absolutely crucial issues for work and for life.”
The principal writer of the national physics curriculum, Mark Butler, couldn’t be happier that NSW is in the final stages of correcting the dumbing down of the 2001 physics syllabus.
“I am not sure why NSW went this way in 2001 but I have heard teachers, science education academics and educational administrators suggest the following: the pre-2001 syllabus was too ‘boy centred’ with Buck Rogers contexts, (and) the pre-2001 syllabus had become a game of remember an equation and plug in the numbers, and a more engaging and relevant syllabus was needed,’’ Butler says.
“A group of well-meaning science educators with little understanding of what physics actually was about hijacked the syllabus development program to move the syllabus away from numerical analysis and problem-solving and towards sociology and history.’’
He says other states, such as Western Australia and South Australia, also moved towards “contextual” syllabuses, resulting in less mathematical content in their senior physics courses.
Butler, who has served as head teacher of science at Gosford High School for the past two decades, received the 2004 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for excellence in secondary science teaching and is acting as an adviser to NSW on the new physics syllabus.
He believes students now spend a lot of time “rote learning’’ responses to HSC questions on the history and sociology of physics developments.
“The new syllabus should move students away from this shallow learning,’’ he says. “Hopefully students will spend more time developing critical thinking and analytical skills than rote learning pat responses.
“Currently students enter university with a poor idea of what physics is about. The new syllabus should remedy this situation. The new syllabus should also enable students to develop deeper numerical problem solving, critical thinking, modelling and analytical skills.”
Physics teachers and academics, he says, have spent years pressuring NSW authorities to rethink the syllabus to ensure it is challenging for students and prepares them for the demands of physics courses at university.
“Dumbing down is certainly not the answer,’’ Butler says.
The changes to “feminise’’ physics have done little to make the subject more appealing to girls.
Before the 2001 syllabus was introduced, 27-28 per cent of HSC physics candidates were female. Butler says it is now running at 21-22 per cent and “clearly moving to ‘socialise’ the course did not attract more female students’’.
“A problem now is that girls are afraid of joining a class where they will be the only female student or be vastly outnumbered, and this sets up a negative feedback cycle, resulting in even fewer female students choosing physics in the senior school,’’ he says.
But Butler is optimistic that the pendulum is swinging back, thanks to the concerted STEM push and female role models such as Simmons and Cathy Foley, the science director and deputy director manufacturing at the CSIRO.
“Girls are just as capable as boys and should have the opportunity to be challenged in senior science courses,’’ Butler says.
“Physics and the critical thinking, modelling and numerical problem solving skills it engenders are extremely important for the nation’s future. Studying physics prepares students for the sort of thinking that future STEM jobs will require.
“I am not sure if this message is resonating in the broader community but the huge amount of publicity STEM has been getting, and the many new programs that have been introduced to support it, are certainly beginning to have an effect.
“I am hearing more parents talking to their students about STEM careers and the importance of keeping their options open by studying STEM in the senior school.’’
Leading astronomer and astrophysicist Warrick Couch says there have been concerns for years about the watering down of high school physics, NSW being a particular example.
Speaking as the immediate past president of the Australian Institute of Physics, Couch says that in the late 1990s “the Board of Studies in NSW was very concerned about the drop in the number of students who took physics and so to make it more attractive they dumbed it down’’.
“(But) you’re not going to train the physicists of the future by dumbing it down — that’s the key,’’ he says.
“At the end of the day the real problem comes: if you don’t train the students at the high school level to solve problems and use their maths, then they come to university and come unstuck.”
The shortcomings in the high school curriculum essentially shifted the responsibility of preparing students for challenging, high level physics from secondary schools to tertiary institutions.
“Students are arriving at the door of the university and many of them just don’t have that training at high school to do those major physics courses they need to do,’’ says Couch.
Universities tried to cope by offering introductory and bridging courses to get students up to speed.
Couch welcomes the timing of the Simmons intervention in the debate about the importance of recruiting and training students in highly skilled areas of science and mathematics to Australia’s long-term prosperity.
“I think we now realise how critical a well-trained STEM workforce is to the future of the country and how under-resourced we are as a country in that area due to many years of neglect in terms of ensuring we have enough students going through doing the sciences and the STEM subjects, physics, chemistry, maths and engineering.’’
The Good Careers Guide 2016, published by Good Education Group, found that highly skilled STEM graduates earned more as employer demand for their maths and science skills gathered pace.
Engineering degree graduates, for example, earn an average startling salary of $62,102 — almost $10,000 more than average salaries after graduation.
A 2014 survey of Australian employers by respected consultancy group Deloitte Access Economics underlined the demand for STEM graduates: businesses value workers with skills in critical thinking and complex and creative problem-solving.
Careers for STEM graduates range from geologists and software applications programmers to medical laboratory sciences, and food and wine scientists.
A comprehensive overview of the nation’s STEM workforce, released last year by Finkel’s office based on 2011 census data, said science, research and innovation were recognised as critical to boosting productivity and creating more and better jobs. There were 2.3 million people with STEM qualifications in Australia.
“They are the lifeblood of emerging knowledge-based industries — such as biotechnology, information and communications technology and advanced manufacturing — and provide competitive advantage to established industries — such as agriculture, resources, and healthcare,’’ the report said.
The unemployment rate is lower for STEM graduates, and a higher percentage of them earn an income in the highest bracket of earners, starting at $104,000 a year.
For more information on graduate starting salaries across all fields of study, visit www.gooduniversitiesguide.com.au.
This article originally appeared in The Australian – Time to energise the study of physics, technology and maths