Terry Lyons is Associate Director - Science Education, SiMERR National Centre. Frances Quinn is a Lecturer in the School of Education, University of New England.
Choosing Science: Understanding the Declines in Senior High School Science Enrolments reports on a major, recently completed study commissioned by the National Centre of Science, ICT and Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia (SiMERR) at the University of New England, and supported by the Australian Science Teachers Association. The current article summarises the findings from the report, which is available online from the SiMERR website.
The study, conducted in 2007, was undertaken in two phases. In Phase One, 589 secondary school science teachers were surveyed to identify their perceptions about enrolment declines in science and about the reasons for students' subject selection choices. About 56% of respondents were from government, 14% from Catholic and slightly less than 30% from independent schools. Just over half the teachers taught in capital cities, with around a third coming from rural or remote areas. About 16% of respondents had taught for less than five years, while more than half had been teaching for over 15 years.
Findings from this survey informed Phase Two, a survey of 3,759 Year 10 students who had recently chosen their subjects for Year 11. The Choosing Science sample represented about 1.4% of the 2007 Australian Year 10 cohort students (ABS, 2008). The greatest representations were from NSW, Queensland and South Australia. Close to half the students attended capital city schools, while about 35% were from rural or remote areas. Approximately 42% were from government schools, with independent and Catholic systemic schools contributing about 37% and 21% of the sample respectively.
The Choosing Science study also sought to compare the attitudes of contemporary students with those of students a generation ago when science enrolments were proportionally much higher. Reliable benchmark data was obtained from Fraser's 1977 study, which measured the attitudes of 324 Year 10 students from 11 high schools in the Sydney metropolitan area using the Test of Science Related Attitudes (TOSRA) instrument (Fraser, 1978).
Evidence from the Choosing Science study does not support several of the explanations often advanced for falling enrolments in senior school science.
For example, the study did not identify a substantial decline in the level of interest in science among today's young people. The TOSRA comparison revealed no meaningful differences between the attitudes of today's students and those of a comparable cohort from 1977 in respect of four measures: enjoyment of school science, social implications of science, normality of scientists, and interest in science careers. Nor did the study find that students were deterred from senior secondary science by perceptions that science-based jobs were hard to get or poorly paid.
Some commentators have attempted to draw a causal link between students' experiences of science in primary school and the declines in science participation. However, findings from Choosing Science challenge this assumption, too. Around 92% of the students believed their secondary school experiences had had the greatest influence on this decision, with around 80% considering their most recent experiences (Years 9 and 10) to have been the most influential.
Factors contributing to the declines
What, then, has contributed to the enrolment declines?
Greater levels of subject choice
The array of subject options available in Year 11 is now far wider than in previous decades. Long-term enrolment data indicate that declines in the proportions of students taking physics, chemistry or biology are part of a broader phenomenon that has seen similar falls in subject areas such as economics, geography, history and advanced mathematics. At the same time, enrolments in subject areas such as business studies, hospitality, computer studies and performing arts have increased substantially.
However, increased subject choice has also given a new level of importance to several factors within science education itself: in the new context, the following three factors appear to have become significant deterrents to the pursuit of senior school science.
Students' images of science careers
The first factor is the difficulty many students appear to have in picturing themselves as practising scientists, a reason given by approximately two-thirds of the Year 10 students not pursuing senior science. Around 47% of science teachers attributed students' reluctance to this same reason; some teachers suggested the need to develop closer links with practising scientists. Previous research (for example, Cleaves, 2005; Stagg, 2007) has similarly highlighted students' lack of appreciation of the variety of science careers available and authentic knowledge about what they involve.
Students' comparisons of the costs and benefits of studying senior science
The second contributing factor is students' calculations of reward for effort. Science subjects traditionally have been seen as difficult, and approximately 45% of students and two-thirds of science teachers gave subject difficulty as a reason why students were not pursuing science at senior levels.
While physics and chemistry are no more difficult now than in the past, the incentives to undertake them have declined. University entry requirements now place less emphasis on the completion of traditional science subjects. This has been an issue of much debate in universities and the media (for example, Belward et al, 2007; Novak, 2009; Phillips, 2009) with the Australian Academy of Science identifying the relaxing of entrance requirements as one of the key contributors to declines in mathematics enrolments at the senior high school level (AAS, 2006). At the same time, the relative utility of other subjects has increased due to changes in tertiary entry criteria and university curriculums, and shifts in the labour market.
Student engagement with science
The third contributing factor is the failure of school science to engage a wider range of students. While around 45% of student respondents agreed that science lessons were fun and one of the most interesting school subjects, about a third of students indicated they were bored by science lessons and over a quarter disliked science classes. In particular, students in rural and remote schools tended to enjoy science less than their peers in larger centres.
Many science teachers recognise the need to make science engaging to a wider range of students. Around 42% of teachers considered that negative experiences of science in junior secondary school had influenced science enrolment levels, while a similar proportion blamed decreases in classroom opportunities for practical and experimental work. Around 38% believed that declines in the quality of science teaching were also a factor.
In the context of a more competitive curriculum, the limited numbers of students who feel engaged by school science has become a cause for concern. Given that many of the new or refurbished senior secondary subjects offer students fresh, innovative and engaging learning experiences, it is reasonable to ask whether more needs to be done to engage students in science education.
The decline in senior secondary science enrolments needs to be addressed through measures that recognise its complex, interrelated causes. The more competitive curriculum environment calls for steps to ensure that school science is made more engaging, inclusive and valued by students. The lack of interest in senior secondary science, which was expressed by many of the surveyed Year 10 students, shows the need for curriculums that make school science learning experiences more interesting and personally relevant to students.
Students are also more likely to undertake senior school science if it is more closely linked to science in university and industry settings, and students are thus offered a clearer picture of science-related careers. At the same time, science teachers need to be made aware that their advice about subject and career choices have a greater influence on students' decisions than teachers generally believe. Girls' participation in science should be further encouraged by making use of measures designed to build their self-efficacy, that remove the barriers to participation faced in some areas of science, and that develop their awareness of the range of science careers available.
To encourage the study of science at tertiary level, systems used to calculate university entry scores/rankings and tertiary entry requirements need to offer adequate recognition of the difficulty of subjects such as physics and chemistry.
There is also a need for further research into the reasons why rural students generally have less positive attitudes toward science than their city-based peers, and whether different school types influence students' subject enrolment choices. Efforts should also be made to determine at what school level these interventions would be most beneficial in order to influence students' subject choices at senior secondary level.
Australian Academy of Science (2006). Mathematics and Statistics: Critical Skills for Australia's Future. AAS: Canberra. Retrieved June 2009.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008). Schools 4221.0 2007.
Belward, S., Mullamphy, D., Read, W. & Snedden, G. (2007). Preparation of students for tertiary studies requiring mathematics. Journal of Australian and New Zealand Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ANZIAM), 47, pp. C840–C857. Retrieved April 2009.
Burke, K. (2003). Dumbed down physics bores the brightest. The Sydney Morning Herald. 1 November. Retrieved December 2003.
Cleaves, A. (2005). The formation of science choices in secondary school. International Journal of Science Education, 27(4), pp. 471–486.
Fraser, B. (1978). Development of a test of science-related attitudes. Science Education, 62(4), pp. 509–515.
Novak, K. (2009). Extra points for university entry. Adelaide Advertiser, 25 May.
Phillips, Y. (2009). Year 12 students dumbing down to get into TAFE. Perth Now. 22 December.
Ramsden, J. M. (1998). Mission impossible? Can anything be done about attitudes to science? International Journal of Science Education, 20(2), pp. 125–13.
Stagg, P. (2007). Careers from science: An investigation for the Science Education Forum: Centre for Education and Industry (CEI).
Key Learning AreasScience
Subject HeadingsEducational planning
Senior secondary education