Higher learning

No fewer than eight Fellows of the Royal Society of London—an organisation which has boasted Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein among its members—were taught and inspired at secondary school by one science teacher, Len Basser of Sydney Boys High School. This fact emerged from the 2004 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science.

Basser’s former students include a Nobel Prize winner, Sir John Cornforth, the current president of the Royal Society, Robert May (Lord May of Oxford) and this year’s winner of the $300,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, Professor Graeme Clark, the man who developed the bionic ear. There cannot be many others who have had such an effect on science as Len Basser.

It brought home to Archimedes and those gathered at the awards ceremony in Parliament House just how important science teachers are. And the PM’s awards recognise this. Of the five prizes awarded, there is a $50,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools, this year won by Mr Alwyn Powell, who teaches year one at Darling Heights State School in Toowoomba; and another $50,000 prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools, which went to Dr Mark Butler, head science teacher at Gosford High School.

The delight and dedication of both winners was a highlight, and made an indelible impression on the audience. Also Professor Ben Eggleton, the winner of the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, realised at the ceremony that one of his students had been taught by Mark Butler.

Despite this, how often do we think of the teachers who underpin our society? Australia will need about 85,000 more scientists by the end of the decade, according to Queensland’s chief scientist, Professor Peter Andrews. His estimate is based on the projected expansion of science-based industries such as biotechnology, and the consequent need for qualified people.

We can import some of these scientists—although it will be expensive, as we will be competing with the rest of the world to do so—but the best solution is to grow our own. However, the number of school leavers qualified to take up science is dropping. For instance, Andrews says, the number of secondary students studying physics and chemistry has halved since 1980. His solution is to improve the pay and conditions for science teachers, so they can provide inspiring teaching to get students interested.

To be fair, Federal and State governments recognise the problem and are slowly trying to encourage more young people into becoming science and mathematics teachers. But it really needs more than that. In the past, teaching was an honourable profession. Nowadays, how many young people aspire to become teachers, and how many parents encourage them?

Maybe familiarity has bred a certain amount of contempt. Perhaps it’s time to see them for what they really are: skilled professionals who help shape the future of our society. From that perspective, in addition to a goodly share of the taxpayer’s purse, they deserve our respect. There are few more sound investments. 

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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