An unpopular image, perceptions of irrelevancy to everyday life and some uninspiring teaching are causing students to question the purpose of science and mathematics in the classroom, with less than half of those sampled totally agreeing that science is central to maintaining Australia's way of life.
A report by Universities Australia, commissioned by Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, highlights Australian students' growing lack of appreciation of the relevance and role of science in their lives and communities and of its potential for rewarding career opportunities.
Universities Australia CEO, Dr Glenn Withers, said "This trend should be setting off alarm bells as it poses a risk to Australia's future as an innovative nation and an international leader in research."
The report's findings revealed that students are often disillusioned with science and maths, with many teachers displaying a lack of enthusiasm for the course content and preventing students from maintaining further interest.
Other findings included that science and maths (in school and universities) are often seen as being taught in an outdated and impractical manner, not befitting the hands-on nature of much scientific discovery and work; and that science and maths were often viewed as too hard with difficult career prospects.
A surveyed student said, "I feel like in science and maths classes, it's more the teacher talking at you ... When you're engaged in and doing projects, and maybe working with partners, that may be more of an engaging activity versus sitting in a room for sixty minutes and listening to someone talking at you ... "
Dr Withers believes such responses indicate a need to re-invigorate maths and science in the classroom.
"It seems science and maths cannot be taught effectively in a static, textbook focused environment. Analysing classic reactions or only studying theoretical approaches cannot engage and stimulate students enough in the same way applied science can. For example, instead of just studying the composition of various metals, allowing students to see the role these metals play in car manufacturing illustrates the value of science and maths in a way they can immediately relate to.
"With the Government reviewing the funding and quality of higher education teaching (following the Base Funding Review), we have an opportunity to radically rethink the way we teach science and maths subjects in our schools to ensure commencement rates increase.
"We need to work hard at finding new and better ways to send the right signals to students about the social and economic value of science and maths. This includes working with employers to motivate students about careers that utilise their talents and skills to ensure the employers themselves are "graduate ready" to best use the training.
"If we cannot get students to move away from such negative stereotypes and get them interested in the art of scientific discovery, then we undermine an important foundation for our future in Australia," Dr Withers concluded.