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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Supporting science education for regional communities and primary industries

David Russell
National Director, Primary Industry Centre for Science Education

Australia needs greater numbers of skilled science professionals to meet primary industry demand, particularly in rural and regional areas. Yet enrolments in undergraduate science courses are falling. Governments, industry, universities and research organisations have all established initiatives to attract students to tertiary science studies, but many of them have been short term or narrowly focused, and to date these initiatives have not arrested the decline.

The Primary Industry Centre for Science Education (PICSE) is addressing this problem. PISCE is a national collaboration between universities, their regional communities and local primary industries, aiming to attract students into tertiary science and to increase the number of skilled professionals in agribusiness and research institutions.

Several of PICSE's strategies focus on secondary schools. PISCE works with school leaders, teachers and students to encourage greater engagement with science, and greater use of scientific inquiry in the learning process. It also links schools with local primary industries, and seeks to promote awareness of the careers and opportunities available to future graduates in science-based primary industries.

PISCE is an experiential education program encompassing teacher professional development, class resources, learning activities, student camps and industry placements all aimed at making science and primary industry study and careers real and relevant to Australian teachers and students. The program's activities deliver innovative engagement programs for students and teachers that make science relevant and exciting, as well as increasing the range of experiences to allow students to make informed choices for tertiary science-focused study and industry retention.

PICSE's National Office is located at the Cradle Coast Campus of the University of Tasmania in Burnie, with an Activity Centre based in the School of Agricultural Science in Hobart. PICSE Science Education Officers (SEOs) are science teachers employed at a local university who manage the PICSE programs delivered by Activity Centres. PICSE also has nine other Activity Centres located in Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and NSW.

Work with secondary students

PISCE staff work with school students in a number of ways. Its officers deliver class presentations in which students see examples of how science is applied in local primary industries. Students are exposed to cutting edge scientific research, and made aware of opportunities for science graduates in their region.

Students in years 11 and 12 may apply for scholarships administered through PISCE. Successful candidates take part in five-day industry camps each December. At these gatherings the students have a chance for in-depth consideration of career and research opportunities for science graduates. The camps also involve postgraduate students from local research institutions and scientists working in local primary industries, all of whom provide assistance and input.

Each January, following the camps, the participating students are offered a five-day industry placement in which the student joins a team of scientists in specific local industries or research organisations. At the end of the placement, students provide a report to other scholarship students, industry mentors, parents, and the relevant university.

In some PICSE Activity Centres a camp is also offered annually to year 9 and 10 students, once again with a focus on connecting schools with local primary industries and research in their local university. These camps reinforce the value of science and assist students in their choice of year 11 subjects.

The primary and middle school class engagement is based on the PICSE Science Investigation Awards (SIAs) where the SEOs spend time in class assisting students to plan and complete their chosen investigations using Scientific Method. The SEOs also assist teachers to achieve national curriculum outcomes in the Science Inquiry Skills strand. The finale is a morning of judging by community judges, followed by an awards session to celebrate the students' work.

An addition to the PICSE activities for schools in 2012 is the PICSE-Dow AgroScience's annual Science for Growth Awards (SGA), which provide an opportunity for school students to improve their science skills by participating in real-life science investigation online. Students pick a scientific topic that interests them, pose a hypothesis, carry out experiments and work to answer their question using scientific methodology.

Students will present their findings using presentation software. Their work will be judged online by scientists and industry representatives who will select winners based on:

  • the use of the scientific method within the report
  • the standard and relevance of the visual presentation, using photographs, diagrams, graphs and YouTube clips
  • the effectiveness of the written communication using text, graphics and podcasts.

The Awards are open to year 9/10 students from any school not currently linked with a PICSE Activity Centre (see www.picse.net for details of Activity Centres). During 2012 the Science for Growth Awards will be run as a pilot in New South Wales and Queensland schools, with a full national role-out in 2013. While Science for Growth will support science teaching in regional and remote schools, students in large towns or cities are encouraged to participate.

PICSE has developed a booklet called Science Taking You Places and a CD, Science Adventures with Igor, to support students and teachers undertaking Science for Growth. These resources and others can be found on http://www.picse.net/HUB/resources.htm

Selected student/investigation details are to be submitted to the PICSE National Office (PICSE.Admin@utas.edu.au) by 5pm EST, 1st June of the year of the competition.

Teacher professional learning

Teacher professional development is a core annual activity of the national project, run from each of its Activity Centres. It is conducted by PICSE Science Education Officers (SEOs) who have taught science in local schools, understand the value of the science taught in school to the local primary industries and can inform students about options for tertiary study pathways.

Once a year, each Activity Centre holds a two-day program of professional development for teachers, to illustrate the connection between the science taught in class and the science used locally in primary industries and research and development organisations.

As one example, 42 science teachers from secondary schools across Tasmania attended the University of Tasmania on 5–6 December 2011, and discovered the latest advances in research supporting food and water security. Teachers interacted with policymakers, politicians, innovative farmers and leading scientific researchers involved in various aspects of food production, water management and environmental protection. The presenters showcased examples of the cutting edge research funded by Research and Development Corporations such as GRDC and FRDC. The teachers were provided with lesson activity ideas for their classroom teaching and were provided with teaching resources developed by PICSE. These resources included the latest interactive program 'Chemistry and Biology Interactive Lessons: Science linking with Primary Industries', which was launched at this event.

Experienced teachers work with PISCE to produce science teaching resources that integrate readily into pre-tertiary science curricula. Each year different themes are chosen, relating to different science subjects and linked to industry applications. These resources are based on a wide range of real-life examples from primary industries that show chemistry, biology and other sciences in action. The resources focus on the importance of food and fibre production, extractive industries and water security. The resources also draw students' attention to potential careers in these essential sectors.

PISCE and the Australian Curriculum

PICSE has provided ongoing input to the Australian Curriculum during its development, promoting the views of its partners to the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) through the consultation process. The senior years' curriculum for mathematics and science are currently under revision and PICSE will be providing appropriate input based on its direct engagement with science and agricultural science teachers and their national professional organisations.

Background to the project

PISCE developed from a series of pilots funded by industries, research and development corporations, universities and government. The partnership model used for PISCE, known as the Russell Model, was first implemented by the University of Tasmania (UTAS) in 1998 within that state. Over the next three years enrolments in agricultural science at UTAS significantly increased, against the national trend.

In 2004, an independent evaluation of the project recommended that it be promoted nationally, and that it be applied to industries beyond agriculture. Since then it has been endorsed further by a national scoping study in 2006 with a fully investigated national business case prepared in 2007.

PICSE has a number of financial sponsors, including DEEWR and many industry and university partners.

How schools can take part

Schools interested in participating in the PICSE program can contact the Science Education Officer (SEO) at their local PICSE Activity Centre (http://www.picse.net) or email PICSE.Admin@utas.edu.au.  

Calendar of PICSE Activities:

  • Science for Growth will be commencing in March and completing in June;
  • SEOs start working with classes on their Science Investigation Awards in March with the judging taking place in August and September;
  • Year 11/12 class visits will take place from May, with the Industry Placement Camp program occurring in December and January;
  • Teachers' Professional Development activities take place in December.


Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Secondary education
Professional development
Educational planning
Science teaching
Career education
School and community
Rural education