Sociology will lead to more science students

12 September 2012

As Australian educators struggle to attract students to science, one PhD candidate is taking a new approach to improve the way the subject is taught.

David Ashe, a postgraduate fellow with the faculty's Centre for Research on Computer Supported Learning and Cognition (CoCo) has been researching how access to new technology in class stimulates engagement in science education, particularly in the growing field of sustainability studies.

Over the past three years Ashe has analysed the processes behind students' comprehension of complex scientific issues, as well as the educational environments most conducive to active learning.

He said he believes science and sociology are becoming more interlinked, as sustainability subjects enter the National Curriculum. "Sustainability is a complex issue and one that all students will need to consider either during their formal school education or during their lifelong learning," he said.

"I am interested in how school students think and reason when faced with scientific dilemmas. Finding ways to create learning contexts that can help students activate productive knowledge may enable them to come to a better understanding of sustainability issues."

The recent Health of Australian Science report by Australia's Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, highlighted a stagnation in the number of students studying science subjects nationally. Chubb expressed the need to jumpstart the science curriculum at both senior and primary levels, because current teaching methods have failed to engage students in the disciplines of maths, physics and chemistry.

Ashe said he plans to determine the impact on students' approaches to learning and teachers' knowledge capacity when science is taught with sociological context. He said he hopes his research will help future educators involve younger generations in science.

Ashe arrived at the Faculty of Education and Social Work after completing undergraduate studies in agricultural engineering. Harnessing career experience in the IT industry as a former education development manager for Apple in the United Kingdom, he said he considered a career change towards further study after teaching mathematics and computer science.

"I have always been interested in cognition and had wanted to take some time out of my career to discover more about how we think and learn. A PhD seemed the obvious direction and I was very pleased to be granted a place at the University of Sydney," he said.

CoCo is a leading centre internationally in the burgeoning field of the learning sciences. The centre recently hosted the biennial International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS), a prestigious event in the field held for the first time in the Asia-Pacific region last July.

Ashe said that throughout his candidature, he has "enjoyed every minute" of CoCo's collegial atmosphere, where he has the support of other academics as "part of a team of researchers".

"Becoming a PhD student at CoCo has brought me into direct contact with internationally renowned researchers and given me the opportunity of contributing to major research projects. It is certainly a challenge; there is a lot to learn, a lot to read and a lot to understand. But, it is also a time to explore, to follow ideas and to push boundaries of knowledge," he said.

Ashe credits CoCo's weekly seminar sessions, in particular, as a way to become exposed to fresh concepts while having the chance to present his own research findings.

"We have an informal reading group where we discuss book chapters and journal articles and an open-plan research lab where we work and help each other. I cannot imagine a better environment in which I could have embarked on this challenging and exciting journey."

Ashe said he has also had myriad opportunities to build his research and teaching portfolio while at CoCo, where he has worked as a research assistant, undergraduate and postgraduate coursework tutor, and postgraduate fellow on an Australian Research Council funded project.

Ashe said that although he is uncertain about the direction career will take after his studies or what his working life will look like, he believes cognition and learning will be at the heart of his life's work. "Whatever my life journey has in store, I believe it will be richer for my time spent at CoCo."

Contact: Emily Jones

Phone: 02 9114 1961

Email: 03142e270f1e2344032d071a1741530d2e0b4114345a591700