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Science and maths teaching receives $1 million boost


Brigid Veale
1 October 2013
Southern Cross University’s School of Education is leading a new three-year $1 million research project awarded to the Regional Universities Network (RUN) to improve maths and science pre-service teacher training.

The project is funded by the Australian Government’s Office for Learning and Teaching and the project leader is Southern Cross University’s Dr Geoff Woolcott, who has a PhD in science and another in education.

“There are concerns Australian results in international comparative testing in maths and sciences are down compared to other OECD countries,” Dr Woolcott said.

The key aims of the RUN research project, entitled 'It’s part of my life: engaging university and community to enhance science and mathematics education', are to boost pre-service teacher confidence in maths and science, and for universities to collaboratively develop a model for embedding real-world science and maths scenarios into university education curriculums, particularly those that are aimed at primary school and high school pre-service teaching.

“This project is designed to increase the confidence of people entering primary and secondary teaching by drawing attention to the maths and science they already engage with in everyday life, and building pre-service teaching around it,” Dr Woolcott said.

“For example, if there is a garden project at school, teachers will be using science often without realising it. They regulate soil fertility with water and fertiliser, based in scientific approaches. Even getting a bottle of milk from a cow to your dinner table involves a lot of science.”

The project will begin with a trial of six pre-service teachers in the first session of 2014, as well as six in a control group, at three campus locations at Southern Cross University, University of New England and Central Queensland University. It will then rapidly expand to more than 300 over the three years, as it is embedded in the pre-service education courses of each of the six RUN partners: Central Queensland University, Southern Cross University, University of Ballarat, University of New England, University of Southern Queensland and University of the Sunshine Coast.

“We’ll be evaluating every aspect of the project across the six universities including our interface with pre-service teachers and their interface with students. We’ll be using all those procedures as a model so we can embed them into our university courses,” Dr Woolcott said.

Professor Martin Hayden, head of the School of Education, welcomed the grant as a milestone in the life of the School of Education.

"The broader significance of this project is that it contributes greatly to the strength of our research profile in the maths-science area," he said.

The project’s research team coordinator, Professor Leigh Sullivan, expressed enthusiasm for this initiative.

“Engaging in science is one of life’s most exciting and important activities. The project’s research team will embrace this opportunity to enhance further the confidence of pre-service teachers to actively engage their students in the mathematics, engineering and science of everyday activities and situations.”

The need to improve science and maths teacher training was highlighted in May 2012 when Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb AC released the report 'Mathematics, engineering and science in the national interest'. It stated that “between 1992 and 2009, the proportion of Year 12 students taking physics, chemistry and biology fell by 31 per cent, 23 per cent and 32 per cent respectively,” and that the proportion of pre-service teachers that studied maths and science at high school is also falling. It also said: “There is a global perception that a workforce with a substantial proportion educated in mathematics, engineering and science is essential to future prosperity.”

In response to the Chief Scientist’s report, the federal government committed $54 million over four years to the Investing in Science and Maths for a Smarter Future initiative. Within that, $12.4 million was committed to the Enhancing the Training of Mathematics and Science Teachers Program through the Office for Learning and Teaching in the Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIICSRTE).

Photo: Dr Geoff Woolcott.