Australian Students Studying Much Less Science

Australian Students Studying Much Less Science

In 1992, 94.1 per cent of Australian high school students studied a science subject. In 2010, that proportion had dropped dramatically, with just 51.4 per cent doing science. What happened, and how can we make science a more appealing subject?

Way back when I went to high school, it was taken for granted that if you wanted to get to university, you would study both physics and chemistry. I had originally planned to do both, until the first day of year 11, when I realised in the nick of time that it would be far more useful to me to study French rather than chemistry. So I switched subjects, to the horror of the science department and the school guidance counsellors. It didn’t make any difference to my scores — even when I dumped physics in Year 12, I was dux of the school. But for all that, the combination of 4 unit maths and computer science meant I wasn’t exactly missing out in the science area.

These days, it would seem missing out is all too easy. The research by the Australian Academy Of Science suggests that a continuing emphasis on university graduates is making life tougher for the growing numbers of students who complete year 12 but don’t want to go on to further study. Lead author Professor Dennis Goodrum put it neatly in the announcement of the research:

The belief that students only take science subjects in preparation for university has resulted in an overcrowded curriculum. This encourages science to be taught in a traditional way which assumes that students know little and the role of the teacher is to fill their heads with new facts and knowledge.

Recommendations in the report by the Academy to improve the numbers of students studying science include reassessing the amount of content in each course, improving science teaching resources, making courses more practical and engaging and encouraging better teaching. (It would presumably also help if there was just one national curriculum for science rather than a hodge-podge of state-based systems.)

How much science did you study in school? Wish you’d done more, less, or just had a better teacher? Share your thoughts in the comments.


  • Working for a university I saw that the ‘drop-outs’ of science at university go on to become high school teachers (in recent years that is). In the last 4 years, I saw those students who did not want to do research or had really poor marks to go on to do anything further with their science degrees went and got a teaching degree, paving the way to pass on their poor knowledge and in some cases a rather indifferent view of science to their students later on.

    • I had school peers who were really very very ordinary who trained as primary school teachers, who were retrained as high-school science teachers despite never undertaking any studies in those subjects in high school or (AFAICT) at tertiary level.
      I remember at the time I left school in the 80s there were no NSW teacher’s scholarships for science teaching, only for woodworking and ‘home science’ ( a subject for which you could cook the best meal in the world and yet have grades reduced because your mum wouldn’t let you bring a vase to school to put on the table when it was presented). Hurry on the clever country.

  • I had shocking science teachers at high school – I remember having to show my Chemistry teacher how to solve one of the questions he set in our trial HSC exam. I wish I had the option to study French but the curriculum-setting deputy headmaster sneered at me.

    Mind you it was still a pretty mixed bag for science/math lecturers at university – a couple of brilliant ones but most pretty ordinary. I remember dropping subjects each year basically because the lecturers & tutors had eviscerated any joy I had in them. I remember at the end of first term of Chemistry that the professor was very upset that all the best students were opting out.

    By the time I had my honours year it was pretty much last man standing, and with teaching standards even lower in that year I didn’t look back at graduation. Having your honours supervisor (who had mysteriously disappeared for months in the middle of the year) heckle you in the middle of your final project presentation (when he suddenly surfaced) doesn’t go well.

    I had better lecturers doing a masters later but still remember one particularly awful one who was simply using students to generate data for his PhD. There was also a lot of problems with some engineering subjects where the students were mainly from overseas and didn’t have enough spoken English to participate in classroom discussions (or their culture of education was one of “no questioning”). It really dropped the level of the entire class.

    Some twenty+ years later I had lunch with a faculty professor from my undergrad compsci faculty with a view to doing something with their department. The mindset was as unimpressive as ever.

    • A postscript: it doesn’t have to be that way. As I said I had a handful of brilliant lecturers in my undergraduate science years but that was pretty much at the rate of 1 out of a possible 8-12 in a year. In my honours year I gave tutorial classes for second year mathematics students – usually these are pretty poorly attended, but my class size nearly doubled by the end of my first term. It just takes a little bit of interest and engagement. My students did very well in their exams 🙂

      re: French. One or two European languages from (German, French, Italian and Russian) is mandatory for honours year courses in many science subjects. If you haven’t been to a school that teaches these, you’re fucked. Mind my French.

      • Mike, your experiences are just like every other person who does science at university. I heard of supervisors who were absent for entire projects except for the end (where they even forget the student’s name at the presentation!), international students with rudimentary writing and speaking skills which meant that there was no discussion in tutorials and group projects involving the only local student spending the last two days re-writing the entire report (the university tells us to pass them since they are full fee paying) and most professors are too stressed about publishing their own papers to care about their teaching responsibilities. On top of all that the federal research grants have pretty much dried up so universities are trying to boost student numbers in science to fund research projects which is not happening as numbers are dwindling rapidly. It’s an absolutely vicious cycle.

        The future of education, not just science education, seems quite dire in this country.

          • The only details that my computer science lecturers knew where the ones they copied out of the textbook onto overhead projector film and recited verbatim to a theatre full of students who were just starting to learn the joys of self-harming.

  • Hopefully this means that the people that do choose to do science do it because they actually enjoy it. My y12 science classes were great; not overly large but those that were in it wanted to be there. The few that were just doing the subjects for barely-related later courses seemed to drag others down a bit.

  • I’m studying science at high-school now, and must say it is completely messed up. Firstly, they only explained what year 11/12 science courses we should do for TAFE/Uni to the to science class, the others were just given the list of subjects with no explanation.

    I had a great Chem teacher this year, and with any luck I’ll get him again, but my Physics teacher was severely substandard. They don’t mention anywhere in the guidelines about non-standard units, so he can penalize me in one test for using grams instead of kilograms, and then tell me I should be using cm/s instead of m/s in his example because we’re given cm measurements.

    From the point of view of a student, the reasons we don’t study the science subjects are from what we’re told. When I was looking at my subjects, my class were told:

    Physics is very hard, and has lot’s of complex formulae.
    Chemistry is also very hard, you have to memorize everything.
    Biology is easier, but you still have to memorize everything.
    Human Biology is easier again. You learn a lot about the reproductive system
    Integrated Science is really easy, it’s a bit of everything and probably easier than what you’re doing now.

    Nothing there sounds too appealing, does it? That’s why we don’t do science subjects, we’re scared away from them.

    • The descriptions of different science subjects you just made is exactly what I was told, too.
      I was scared out of my mind of doing a subject that I might fail (Physics). Little did I know that I’d still have gotten a better UAI if I’d failed physics than topped my class in English. The subject scaling system is so very, very strange.
      I also definitely agree with the concept of a national curriculum – it’s way overdue.

      • History: so many places, dates and motivations to remember
        Economics: formulae, regulations and history to memorise
        English: novel plots & characters to memorise, poetry lines to remember, textual analysis methods to comprehend and apply

        Life’s awful.

  • I did Physics in year 11 – had a teacher that was next to useless, was a nice guy but I learnt absolutely nothing from him, almost failed the mid term, then next semester had the other physics guy at our school, he was much older and although he was a dick most of the time I actually learnt quite a bit and did well on the exam – unfortunately he retired that year so there was no way I would do it in year 12.

    I did however bail from Maths at the last minute and pick up Biology. Best thing I’ve ever made. The teacher was awesome, could talk to her and have a joke but when there was work to do she let us know. Sure there was a lot of mindless copying from powerpoints and lots of worksheets, but it was very interesting and I enjoyed it. Pracs were fun and and most importantly I did fairly well.

  • Two things. . .
    One is a large increase in strong religious belief immigrants with a reluctance towards science education.
    Two, I guess this goes a long way to explaining the acceptance of the whole climate change scam.

      • i will agree with you war. I’m an Elec Engineer that has a keen interest in “climate change” and although i agree that climate change is occurring, the reasons for which are being stated are completely ridiculous because the data streams they are using for their modelling are either too short (in the range of 100-200 years) or too focused on singular event horizons (carbon levels in atmosphere)
        Considering they have estimated ice-age periods to occur between 10,000 and 40,000 years apart, using 100 or even 200 years of data is not enough to effectively predict anything as volatile as the weather patterns on earth. Not to mention the effect the earth’s electro-magnetic field has on this system. (you may not know this but it is heading towards a pole change…..

        • And you are one of the reasons we have this problem. You, an electrical engineer with no formal training in climate science, saying that all climate scientists are wrong about causation and you, an electrical engineer, are right. Your view devalues peoples qualifications and research. This, in turn, drives some people away from studying science. They see you and your ilk basically saying “you might be qualified, but I know better”.

          It’s as though we are developing a culture of people who are actually proud of their ignorance, and can’t help but wave it around like a flag.

          Your views devalue the hard work and research that climate scientists do.
          Next thing you know we’ll have politicians saying that climate scientists don’t know what they are talking about.

          • +1 johnd

            I don’t think I’ve ever read anything on here as acutely embarrassing as Morf’s justification for this excursion off-topic.

          • JohnD. . .
            The term ‘climate scientist’ never existed until Al Gore started using the catch phrase “are you a climate scientist?” Climate scientists didnt exist until the climate change scare kicked into gear.
            You dont need to be a climate scientist to know and understand the weather.

            “My tyres are flat.”
            “Are you a mechanic?”
            “Then you dont know what youre talking about.”

            You dont need to be a climate scientist. You just need to understand science.

          • The only ‘real’ climate scientists are the ones who work directly for the IPCC or related.
            The catch phrase of “are you a climate scientist?” is just a way to shoot down and discredit anyone with a differing opinion.

            I dont need to be an aeronautical engineer to know a brick does not fly, even if there were a hundred models to say otherwise.

          • Not even going to enter into this argument. The fact that you would say something so ridiculous means nothing anyone says will have any impact on you.

          • You did it again. Claiming someone’s differing opinion as being ridiculous is a way for you to discredit an opposing argument.

          • I hear a small voice from a figure in the middle distance jumping up and down shouting “Look at me! I’m ignorant and proud of it!”

          • Wow, claiming someones opinion as ridiculous and then calling them ignorant. Thats very open minded and scientific of you.
            Youre a true to the bone warmist.

  • I’m surprised we got as many replies in as we did before this degnerated into a climate change debate/flame war.
    Back to the topic, it saddens me greatly to read the article and the replies after it from current and recently graduated students. As a family member of a scientist I can certainly concur that the federal government has taken the razor to science grants and funding – something that has gone largely unnoticed by the general public who are swayed by TV ads. Despite living in a modern era, we need good science now more than ever before.

  • 2 things:
    1 – The curriculum isn’t exactly science, moreso social science (which needs less of an emphasis) and is very unappealing
    2 – Many schools restrict science and fill up columns with choices (such as mine which puts Biology against Religion or physics against languages)

  • Have a look in the weekend newspaper job ads. How many ads are there for “Scientist”. Look again: how many are there for “Accountant”. A career in science is a long hard slog: very high educational requirements, but poor pay and conditions and chronic job insecurity. No wonder smart kids choose something different. I love being a professional scientist: it’s a rewarding, fascinating and important thing to do, but it’s not a logical financial choice to be one!

  • i just finished my HSC and was considered the one of ‘smarter’ wishing to do engineering i picked physics, chem, and 3 units of maths and did reasonably well. however it seems that Atar’s are based entirely on position in courses and don’t take into account the difference in difficulty. so i could’ve gotten an 80 doing general maths and english with business studies and sor2 which i’m good at but got a lower score doing harder courses. Why would students want to do science if its harder?

    • It also only takes into account your top 4 subjects. So essentially what you can do is take 6 subjects over 3 years (Not an option for most but if you’ve skipped a year…) 4 being the ones you require for uni entry, and 2 of the easiest that your school offers.

      That’s one easy way to get a high 90s score.

  • Main cause being lack of government support. No funding. No respect. Why? No votes.

    The fact that teaching is now dominated by women (who as a whole tend not to like the sciences) doesnt help. Not bagging on women, the two sexes are just different when you look at them in aggregate.

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