Choose science

For the last two decades the number of Year 11 and 12 students enrolled in science subjects has fallen dramatically to about 50 percent, a staggering fact considering the number used to be 94 percent.

As a parent, a scientist, and director of a natural sciences museum and leading scientific research institution, I find these numbers very concerning. Even more so as reports seem to confirm that, while the decrease is slowing, the general consensus is that enrolment numbers have not yet reached their lowest point.

Why do we need to study science? Professor Ian Chubb, Australia’s Chief Scientist, has been leading the charge to draw attention to this drop and to get students back into science. Quoted in his May 2012 report Mathematics, Engineering & Science in the National Interest Professor Chubb explains that sciences “are the disciplines that help us to understand the natural world, and enable us to build a constructed world in which we apply what we know to improve the lot of human-kind. They are seen as part of the essential path to a future that is broadly socially, culturally and
economically prosperous.”

The good news is that attention is beginning to focus on what can be done and much of this is about effecting positive change in the classroom. The National Interest report, which I would encourage all parents, grandparents and carers to read, is a sound and ambitious brief of recommendations to turn back this trend by identifying strategies that will benefit all students throughout their school years. 

There is absolutely a place for science museums in this effort too. Museums can offer unique experiences that create an emotional impact which empowers young children with scientific knowledge and can change their lives. Museums all over the world do this beautifully by inspiring young learners with exploration and discovery in order to encourage a greater understanding of our world. Museums are one of the most trusted community information resources because they are based on the real thing: the collections.

At the South Australian Museum, our Minerals Gallery is a good example of this. The gallery is the responsibility of our geologists, Professor Allan Pring and Professor Joël Brugger. These working scientists also lead our Minerals, Metals and Solutions (MM&S) group, a powerful research body internationally acknowledged as a leader in understanding the physical chemistry of metal transport and ore formation in hydrothermal systems. MM&S has been awarded over $7 million from the Australian Research Council and the mining industry over the past 10 years to undertake scientific research. In addition they have built our minerals collection into one of the most significant in the country. All of this real experience, cutting-edge research and collection development is then poured into the Minerals Gallery to ensure we are offering an experience that sparks young imaginations.

Science has always been part of my life. I chose science and as a result it has changed and shaped my life by taking me on adventures all over the world in order to explore, research and understand. Science was presented to me by my parents at a young age as something that was valuable, and meaningful. I wanted to learn about it, and so I pursued it throughout my career. And I know many other scientists who would say exactly the same. They were inspired, from a young age, to learn more about the world around by seeing or experiencing something that affected them deeply and emotionally.

At the South Australian Museum, we have many objects that we know are owned by our young visitors as we see them time and time again tugging their parents over to visit them. They race up the stairs to see the giant squid, are wide-eyed by the brilliance of the Minerals Gallery, pull open all the drawers in the Biodiversity Gallery, giggle as they touch the ice-wall in the Mawson Gallery, and wait patiently for Nathan to wag his tail in our Mammals Gallery. These moments represent a choice that children are making. They are choosing these objects because they have experienced an emotional impact from them, and as a result they are learning about science. What is also important to note is that these objects are all directly related to a real scientific field. In this instance: evolutionary biology, mammalogy, geology and Polar expeditions.

We saw this impact most recently at the Museum during our April School Holiday Program. Over 7,000 children and their families came to see Sea to Shore: A Prehistoric Encounter, an amazing performance which used the most glorious life-size puppets to explain Australia’s unique fossil history and to tell the story of first life.

The South Australian Museum is committed to being part of the solution to get our children back into science. We are committed to making it accessible, engaging and fun, and to being a place where families can learn and grow together by sharing experiences that create a lifelong emotional impact that inspires young learners to choose science.

Professor Suzanne Miller is the Director of the South Australian Museum