Opinion- 29 August 2010

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Who Needs It?



pdf file-available from Australasian Science



This coming September 2nd the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) will meet for the 7th time since August 2009 -- its first meeting after the inauguration of US President Barack Obama. One of its principal agenda items will be the discussion of the K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Study.



The last two meetings of Australia's Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) were held in June 2009 and March 2010. The date for the next meeting is yet to be published.



The principal matter discussed at PMSEIC's March meeting was the report tabled by a "PMSEIC Expert Working Group, comprised of neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, psychologists and a range of education specialists... Transforming Learning and the Transmission of Knowledge. The report focuses on fundamental questions that influence our ability to learn and highlights the potential of bringing together researchers and practitioners to address the science of learning within a structured and sustained program. The report also highlights the opportunity for Australia to transform its learning-related practices, with the aim of enhancing life-long learning outcomes for all Australians."


The PMSEIC website page (last reviewed on July 30, 2010) goes on to state:

The report’s central recommendation is the establishment of a Science of Learning Program, to be delivered through a number of interdisciplinary and interprofessional Science of Learning Centres. The Centres would have a transformational impact on learning by advancing the scientific understanding of effective learning techniques; generating knowledge to inform education policy and practice, and by testing innovative approaches in real world environments to maximise learning outcomes.


The research findings from these Centres are expected to lead to improvements in equity, educational practice and practitioner development, improvements that should narrow the achievement gap and maximise Australia’s economic productivity.


The Centres, if established, would cover Australia geographically and socio-economically and would build on the work already being conducted across Australia by Departments of Education, researchers and other educational groups. It is also expected that parents, carers, learners, community leaders, formal and informal educators, and researchers from different disciplines would work together to provide appropriate direction for the research.


The report recommendations were discussed and the Prime Minister [Rudd] thanked the members for their contributions.


Certainly during the period from this past March through to the recent federal election nothing public was uttered by any individual running for office regarding the report's recommendations or any initiatives that have been, or would be, or even might be seriously considered. The matter of STEM education per se, if anything, was even further from consideration.


And if the report's recommendations were the subject of any discussions amongst  Messrs Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor, or between Mr Wilkie and Ms Gillard they must have been very, very confidential.


Or as Sacha Baron Cohen's alter ego Borat Sagdiyev might observe: "You make big joke, yes?"



With timing that may or may not have been fortuitous, this week's editorial in Science by Rodger Bybee asks "What is STEM Education?"


Dr Bybee opens with: "The United States needs a broader, more coordinated strategy for precollege education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).


"That strategy should include all the STEM disciplines and address the need for greater diversity in the STEM professions, for a workforce with deep technical and personal skills, and for a STEM-literate citizenry prepared to address the grand challenges of the 21st century," and in his view, "students must acquire such skills as adaptability, complex communication, social skills, non-routine problem solving, self-management, and systems thinking to compete in the modern economy... Indeed, the competencies that citizens need to understand and address such issues, from the personal to global perspectives, are as clearly linked to knowledge in the STEM disciplines as they are to economics, politics, and cultural values."


In preliminary discussion this past July by PCAST of its report on STEM education, stress was laid on the necessity to obtain and maintain competent and enthusiastic primary and secondary school teaching. You might believe that that was bleedin' obvious. But in Australia little of apparent consequence is being done about it or even being seriously proposed (hand waving proclamations aren't all that useful, and, protestations to the contrary, that's really what's happening).


And looking a bit deeper the training of individuals who would qualify as competent and enthusiastic primary and secondary school teachers would fall to our universities. Here it may be appropriate to refer to the long forgotten 450 page report of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education Reference Committee promulgated in September 2001 -- Universities in Crisis: Report into the capacity of public universities to meet Australia's higher education needs. To now suggest that the steps taken to implement the December 2008 recommendations of the Review of Australian Higher Education chaired by Professor Denise Bradley is an adequate response to our Universities in Crisis is ludicrous, and certainly the inadequacy of STEM education if anything continues to increase relative to the nation's needs.

[See also: Prepare and Inspire: STEM Education for America’s Future].


Mr Abbott has proposed kinder and gentler parliamentary behaviour. But that poses the question, does that merely presage a government the equivalent of an incompetent physician sporting an outstanding bedside manner?



Alex Reisner

The Funneled Web