Is the Crisis in Science Education Continuing? Current Senior Secondary Science Enrolment and Tertiary Entrance Trends in Western Australia

Article excerpt

In May 2007 an issue of the Australian Education Review was released reporting on the state of science education in Australia. The report argued that we are in the advanced stages of a crisis in school science that threatens the future of Australia as a technologically advanced nation, and we need to change the way we think about the purposes and practice of school science--we need to re-imagine it--if we are to turn this crisis around.

The author of that report, Professor Russell Tytler, argues that we need to develop a new and fresh approach to school science if we are to recapture the imagination of students and do justice to the enormous range of ideas and practices of contemporary science. An account of this report was published in Teaching Science, December 2007 and readers invited to respond; the following is one such response.

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Professor Russell Tytler published an article in the December issue of Teaching Science in 2007 titled: 'Re-imagining science education: Engaging students in science for Australia's future" (Tytler, 2007a). This article was a summary of Professor Tytler's review of the same title that was a follow up to the ideas from a conference run by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) in Canberra in August, 2006. In both the summary and the full review, the claim was made that science education in Australia is in crisis. The four main aspects of the crisis in science education included:

1. evidence of students developing increasingly negative attitudes to science over the secondary school years

2. decreasing participation in post- compulsory science subjects, especially the 'enabling' sciences of physics, chemistry and higher mathematics

3. a shortage of science-qualified people in the skilled workforce, and

4. a shortage of qualified science teachers (Tytler, 2007b).

The full review provided considerable and compelling evidence from published research to support the main aspects of the crisis in science education, not only in Australia but also throughout the Western world.

While recognising the interdependence of the aspects of the crisis describe by Tytler (2007b), in this article, I will focus on the second aspect of this crisis in science education, that is, the decreasing participation in post- compulsory science subjects. Several teachers have commented to me that they have not noticed declining science enrolments in recent years. Moreover, I noticed that the review, and other papers published in the proceedings of the Canberra conference (ACER, 2006), cited papers that collected data about student participation in science during the 1980s and 1990s. I wanted to see the degree to which the 'downwards spiral' (Tytler 2007a, p. 14; 2007b, p. 7) had impacted on science enrolment trends in Western Australia in recent years.

The purpose of this article is to examine and comment on trends in Western Australian enrolments in Year 12 science subjects from 2002 to 2007 and trends in entrance to Western Australian university science courses from 2003 to 2007. In this article, I will first briefly review the national trends in science enrolments and then examine the more recent trends in science enrolments in WA, followed by a discussion and conclusion.

National trends

Many of the presentations at the ACER conference in 2006 referred to the Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth (LSAY) published in 2003 by the Australian Council for Educational Research and titled "Patterns of Participation in Year 12' by Sue Fullarton, Maurice Walker, John Ainley and Kylie Hillman (2003). It is important to note that much of the data presented in this report were from a cohort of students who were in Year 9 in 1998 and in Year 12 in 2001.

The Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (Fullarton, et al., 2003) showed that in Year 12 the number of students selecting science subjects had declined in the years to 2001. …