Failing the nation in science

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Deans study maths’ role in uni success

The Australian

Australian Edition

Publish Date: 23 May 2018 22:00

Section: HIGHEREDUCATION, p.27

As many as 12 universities across Australia will co-operate with a research project to determine how important high school mathematics study is for success in tertiary-level science courses.

The University of Sydney has already decided to introduce maths prerequisites for certain courses starting next year and other tertiary-level institutions are considering following suit.

The study, commissioned by the Australian Council of Deans of Science following widespread debate on the importance of high school maths for different university courses, has already confirmed the participation of six universities and several others are also likely to participate.

ACDS executive director John Rice said it was important to understand more about the levels of maths understanding needed for university courses.

“In looking to introduce prerequisites, we need to gather solid evidence that connect the level of mathematics study with performance at university,” Professor Rice said.

“I think the syllabuses need to be reviewed more carefully so there is a solid argument about the utility of the various courses, and whether you can really make a case that this level mathematics subject will actually help you in a particular course.

“We run the danger if we force prerequisites on students – all we may do is create a generation of students with an inspired hatred of the subject.” Studies conducted by individual universities suggest that without a solid understanding of maths at more than the very basic level, students were more likely to fail first-year science courses.

Debate on this issue has prompted consternation in the sector, which has culminated in the research study.

“A year or two ago, you couldn’t have got the deans to co-operate like this, but now they are,” Professor Rice said. “They want to know what the real story is here. They need to know it will make a difference.” The ACDS has asked the Australian Council for Educational Research to conduct the research.

Daniel Edwards, ACER’s principal research fellow, said the work would take some time but he hoped it would be finished in the coming months.

“We’re at the recruitment and data evidence-building stage of the project now,” Dr Edwards said. “I think we have five or six universities who are absolutely on board. Our ambition is to get 12 universities to participate.” Work has begun on mapping equivalence across different Year 12 maths courses around the country. Each state offers different mathematics subjects over as many as four levels, and different maths subjects have different names.

This information will be built into a database to find out whether earlier research conducted by the University of Sydney and others is replicable, expanding over a broader scale to include as many universities as possible in a nationally representative way.

Dr Edwards said the earlier -research suggested that even poor results in advanced maths subjects improved students’ chances of doing well in a first-year chemistry course.

“The requirements of the project are relatively sophisticated in terms of the data we need to collect in order to be able to say something useful,” he said, while predicting that access to the data that the project needed would limit university participation.

The study needs both comprehensive information about the depth of students’ mathematics study before they enrol in university and data about the students’ university results. Some universities would have difficulty merging these two datasets.

Certain mathematics academics have been pushing for an -increased emphasis on the importance of solid maths understanding in preparation for university science courses, including biology, chemistry and physics, and other courses that -require higher levels of mathematics understanding.

Geoff Prince, of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, has been encouraging universities to introduce mathematics prerequisites for various courses. “There’s more indication at the moment of consideration on this matter than there has been for 10 years,” Professor Prince said.

SIAN POWELL

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Press Release: Australian Deans of Science say ministerial change fails nation

January 12th 2018

Australian Deans of Science say ministerial change fails nation (download PDF)

Australia’s Deans of Science have expressed their disappointment at the exclusion of science from the senior Ministry in a letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Following the recent reshuffle, the Australian Council of Deans of Science (ACDS) has highlighted the downside in making this change.

“It is a decision that seriously disadvantages the Australian people, who need a strong sustainable innovations system to power Australia’s economic development,” the letter says.

“The absence of senior advocacy for science betrays an absence of the kind of long term strategic thinking that other governments apply to their innovations systems.”

“Why would Innovation be separated from Science?’ asks ACDS President Brian Yates. ‘In the days of the National Innovation and Science Agenda the Prime Minister clearly thought they went together”

“Does he now think that the nation can plan for innovation without science?”

“Our Chief Scientists, current and former, made the case in spades for the connection between science and innovation. It’s a connection that is central to long term strategic planning and resourcing of the kind that you see in developed and developing 21st century economies,” he said.

“Leaving science out of senior government decision making will give the public little confidence that a government is on top of managing the complexity of an innovation driven economy. In the longer term it will undermine our economic competitiveness, and our ability to create jobs and growth.”

Professor Brian Yates, President ACDS

Professor John Rice, Executive Director ACDS

2017 AGM Program

The 2017 ACDS AGM was held at the Mercure Hotel Broadway, Sydney on October 23 and 24. It included a tour of the University of Sydney’s NanoScience Hub on the afternoon of the 23rd, followed by dinner at Darling Harbour at the Adria Bar Restaurant.

The AGM opening address was given by David Learmonth, Deputy Secretary, Higher Education, Research and International Cluster, DET, speaking on, among other things, research impact and industry engagement. It was then followed by a high profile panel, that included Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel, discussing building effective industry connections.

Higher ed budget cuts – ACDS responds

 
On Wednesday 23 August, Universities Australia released an analysis showing that science would bear a larger proportion of the impact of proposed cuts to the higher education budget.
 
Yesterday the ACDS released our response to this analysis, supporting Universities Australia’s call on Parliament and the Senate to rethink the proposed cuts.
 
We believe that the proposed cuts would seriously undermine Australia’s efforts to prepare its young people and its economy for the future. 
 
The full statement is available here.