An Introduction to Science Education in Rural Australia

Article excerpt

Here's a challenge. Try searching Google for the phrase 'rural science teachers' (1) in Australian web content. Surprisingly, my attempts returned only two hits, neither of which actually referred to Australian teachers. Searches for 'rural science education' fare little better. On this evidence one could be forgiven for wondering whether the concept of a rural science teacher actually exists in the Australian consciousness.

OK, so Google is not (yet) the arbiter of our conceptions, and to be fair, there aren't many hits for 'urban science teacher' either. The point I'm making is that in Australia we don't tend to conceptualise science teachers or science education as rural or urban. As a profession we are quite mobile, and throughout our careers many of us have worked in both city and country schools. But that's not to say that rural science teaching isn't conceptually or practically different to teaching in the city.

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In other parts of the world, rural science education is definitely a concept. A similar Google search for 'rural science teachers' in Canada returns two pages of results. In the USA, the National Science Foundation has initiated a program focusing solely on rural science education (e.g. Horn, 2004; Education Development Centre, 2003), and the latest edition of the Handbook on Science Education has an entire chapter dedicated to Rural Science Education (Oliver, 2007). In China the government has even enshrined the popularisation of science and technology in rural areas into law (2), and as part of its modernisation plan is pouring large amounts of money into rural science education programs.

Perhaps it is time to take a closer look at rural science education in Australia. This edition of Teaching Science showcases a small selection of the 125 projects so far supported by the National Centre of Science, ICT and Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia (SiMERR Australia). SiMERR Australia was established through a federal government grant in 2004 to support rural and regional teachers, students and communities in improving educational outcomes in these subject areas. With university-based 'hubs' in every state and territory, SiMERR Australia is a national organisation able to work closely with rural education stakeholders at the local level.

This article provides an introduction to rural science education. It looks at definitions of rurality, and how many schools and students actually constitute rural primary and secondary school education in Australia. It overviews some of the key issues facing rural science education, including student achievement, school culture and student aspirations. Finally, the article introduces the SiMERR Australia projects from Victoria, South Australia, Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales profiled in the journal. We are grateful to ASTA for the opportunity to present a cross-section of our projects in Teaching Science, and hope that all teachers of science, regardless of school location, find something of interest in these articles.

Rural, regional or remote?

The terms rural, regional and remote are often used loosely and interchangeably. A primary school in Bunbury (WA) and another in Lightning Ridge (NSW) might both be described as rural, but the degrees of rurality are very different, as are the community contexts. If we look for technical definitions of rurality, we find that different organisations and government departments use different classifications, adding to the confusion. Some use the Australian Standard Geographical Classification (ASGC), others use a version of the Accessibility/ Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA). Some researchers use postcodes or Local Government Areas to differentiate, and many reports simply use the terms 'urban' and 'rural' without any definition.

In an attempt to standardise reporting for schools, the Ministerial Committee on Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) decided in 2001 to adopt a reporting framework called the MCEETYA Geographical Location Classification (MGLC) (Jones, 2004). …