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Students look through a microscope

Why it matters that student participation in maths and science is declining

13 October 2015
Australian students do less maths and less science than previous generations, and much less than international peers

If declining participation in maths and science continues, Australians can no longer think of themselves as belonging to the clever country, writes Dr Rachel Wilson.

Many students opt out of science and mathematics after the age of 16 – even among those intending to study at university (some in STEM-related degrees). This places Australia in a precarious position in the world’s competitive knowledge economy.
Dr Rachel Wilson

There has been a lot of talk about Australia’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) crisis, and new initiatives have been developed to tackle it. There is talk about engaging students with mathematics and science, kindling student interest and transforming the way it is taught.

But the simple fact remains that many students are choosing not to study these subjects at high school. A new report, with my colleague John Mack, confirms that, compared with 15 years ago – in the dark ages of digital technology – recent NSW high school certificate (HSC) graduates are less well prepared to enter STEM courses at university, while 50% of them finish high school with no science study at all.

Unlike many other countries (such as Finland, the US and China), Australia does not mandate study in mathematics or science for high school graduation. Students get to choose – and in the NSW HSC they have 43 subjects to choose from, not counting the 62 language courses.

More Australian students now complete high school and more go on to university. Yet there are declines and stagnation in mathematics and science study in an era when it is evident that these subjects play an ever-increasing role in our lives and in countries' economies.

Historical perspectives show just how low current science and maths participation in NSW is.

Declining numbers in mathematics

Prior to the new HSC in 2001, more than 98% of high school graduates studied some sort of mathematics. By 2014, 9.7% of HSC students did no maths. The proportion of ATAR-eligible boys studying maths had fallen to 90.7%; among girls it was only 78.6%.

The proportions of students studying no mathematics at all for high school graduation in NSW has trebled since 2001. This also occurred among both boys and girls who applied for an ATAR and were planning to go on to university study.

The level of mathematics studies has also fallen. There are NSW and national declines, with a shift away from intermediate mathematics to more elementary mathematics. In NSW, twice as many students are enrolled in elementary maths as in intermediate maths.

Illogical declines in science

Although less dramatic, there are also declines in science participation. Among NSW ATAR-eligible students, science participation was substantially higher in 1991 – biology 35%, chemistry 26%, physics 24% – than in 2014 (biology 30%, chemistry 20%, physics 17%).

These illogical trends come at a time when there is increasing recognition of the important role these subjects play in educating future workforces.

Since the new HSC in 2001, the proportion of ATAR-eligible students undertaking no science study is stagnant, but at high levels – around 45%. So, nearly one in two university students went science-free in HSC.

The biggest subject in HSC science is biology. More than one-third of ATAR-eligible girls take biology. Only 16% now take a science subject other than biology.

National surveys of science participation also show declines despite rising numbers of students completing high school.

When we compare these statistics to international practice the levels are low. Most countries mandate mathematics study for high school. Many of the high-attaining countries also require science study – even for students who take arts-based streams. The UK is playing catch-up and now plans to require maths study up to 18 years of age.

Declining university preparation

Science and mathematics subject combinations are particularly important preparation for many university degrees. Yet levels of participation are low in various maths and science subject combinations among HSC and ATAR groups, especially among girls.

In 2001, 19.7% of boys and 16.8% of girls from the corresponding Year 8 cohort went on to study a maths-science combination in the HSC. By 2014, only 19% of boys and 14.1% of girls went on to study such maths-science combinations in the HSC.

The magnitude of these declines could be considered marginal. However, the 2001 HSC retention rates from Year 8 for males and females were 63% and 74% respectively, while in 2014 they were 71% and 80% respectively.

One might assume that increased upper secondary and tertiary participation would lead to greater participation in mathematics and science – but this is not the case.

What does this mean?

John Mack points out that the rising numbers of students with no maths means that:

Some 50% of the entire HSC cohort is now ill-prepared to understand any argument presented to them that depends on an understanding of rates of change in scientific data.

The problem is also broader and deeper. The performance of Australian 15-year-olds is falling in the international assessment of mathematics and science literacy (PISA). Australia’s mean scores and international rankings have declined since 2000.

Many students opt out of science and mathematics after the age of 16 – even among those intending to study at university (some in STEM-related degrees). This places Australia in a precarious position in the world’s competitive knowledge economy.

Our report suggests that today’s students with intentions to study at university do less maths and less science than previous generations. And they do much less science and maths than their peers around the world. If these trends continue, Australians can no longer think of themselves as belonging to the clever country.

Dr Rachel Wilson is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Social Work. This article was first published on The Conversation

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