Victoria stumbles on technology basics

A recent Victorian report has shown that its education department is having trouble getting students to embrace the technology basics of science and maths.
Written by Suzanne Tindal, Contributor on

A recent Victorian report has shown that its education department is having trouble getting students to embrace the technology basics of science and maths.

"The [Victorian education department] has failed to lift participation in the enabling sciences, which are critical to future economic and industry needs," according to an audit report (PDF) on the state's science and mathematics participation rates.

The department introduced a strategy in 2009 in an attempt to increase participation. The strategy provided $46 million for 200 teaching and e-learning coaches; $11.25 million in scholarships and career-change programs, to attract new science and maths teachers; and professional learning programs for teachers, at the cost of $1.2 million upfront plus $1 million per year. Money was also spent on upgrading science facilities in schools, and on encouraging schools to build partnerships with industry, business and higher education institutions to make science and maths career options clear to students.

Unfortunately, this investment hasn't had the desired effect, according to the auditor-general's report.

The auditor-general found that although the overall percentage of year 12 students has increased over time, participation in the "enabling" sciences — subjects such as physics, chemistry and advanced mathematics — has fallen.

"While 60 per cent of year 12 students studied one or more science subjects in 2011, only 39 per cent studied biology, chemistry or physics. Growth in psychology enrolments masks lower enrolments in the traditional sciences," the Victorian auditor-general said.

Almost 80 per cent of year 12 students are studying mathematics; however, any increases in participation have been at the lowest levels, while the percentage of those studying it at an advanced or specialist level is declining.

"If this trend continues, it could lead to industry and teacher shortages, which in turn could further compound falling participation in the enabling sciences. Student interest in studying engineering and related technologies at tertiary level is also declining, when there are already skill shortages in these areas," the auditor-general said.

One issue is that students are not achieving well in the enabling sciences during the junior years, when they are developing the essential skills needed to study the subjects at a more senior level, the auditor-general said. Those from low socio-economic backgrounds and regional areas are also struggling to keep up.

The auditor-general recommends that the department develop performance measures to keep an eye on this.

The auditor-general also stated that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor influencing student learning. Unfortunately, while the department has data on overall teacher needs, it does not specifically know how many science and maths teachers are required. Without this data, it cannot know whether it has enough teachers.

This is likely to lead to schools being unable to source maths and science teachers, which may lead to them taking teachers without the correct knowledge or experience, in turn decreasing the quality of teaching.

The auditor-general suggested that the department complete a workforce data-collection framework and implement a strategy that supplies greater numbers of better-quality science and maths teachers.

Despite the 2009 investment of $120.1 million for new science and mathematics infrastructure, the auditor-general found that the availability of facilities and equipment remains uneven across the state, due to roll-out delays and a lack of support from specialist facilities. The auditor-general recommended that the department improve oversight and operation of the specialist centres to ensure that it meets the needs of students, and develop a program to improve the ICT skills of science and maths teachers.

This issue is one that has gained a lot of attention recently, especially since one of the reasons why the government is rolling out the National Broadband Network (NBN) is to make Australia a smart nation that sells smart technology to the world.

Google Australia's engineering director Alan Noble this week said on the company's blog that Australia risks becoming a consuming nation, rather than a smart, creating nation, because there are too few Australians studying computer science at university.

"This is not only a problem for Google and industry, but also for Australia's future prosperity. Of course Google benefits when more people want to become computer engineers, but science, technology, engineering and maths education are the building blocks to a whole range of industries, such as healthcare, finance, manufacturing, energy and resources," he said.

Google believes that teachers are finding it increasingly hard to stay ahead of their tech-savvy students. The Federal Government recognises this, and has begun looking at technologies that students are using, such as cloud and social media, for potential use within the classroom. Google, meanwhile, has started its own program to help teachers, providing free computer science training to high school teachers in collaboration with nine universities across Australia and New Zealand. Google funds the development of two- to three-day workshops that provide training, tips and classroom materials to help teach programming and computing.

"Australia can be home to a Silicon Beach of innovation, but for that to happen, we need an educated workforce who have the right skills for the future," Noble said.

Editorial standards