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Chief Scientist identifies education weaknesses

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb discusses challenges facing science and maths education in Australia, including the lack of female students, dumbing down the maths curriculum and flaws in the tertiary entrance system.

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Science and maths face some of the most entrenched gender divisions of any senior secondary school subjects across Australia, with girls refusing to take up the ''hard'' subjects such as physics and advanced maths in favour of softer courses such as psychology and biology.

Just one-quarter of year 12 physics courses are completed by girls, according to a new research report to be issued next week by the Group of Eight universities.

Instead, girls are far more likely to study psychology, at 73 per cent, and biology, at 65 per cent.

Boys are more likely to study advanced maths than girls, at 60 per cent, while girls are slightly more likely to study basic maths at 53 per cent.

The report also confirms a trend towards fewer students overall completing intermediate maths in favour of basic maths - which last year accounted for 45 per cent of all maths learning. Just 19 per cent of maths completions were at the advanced level, while 36 were at intermediate level maths - down from 40 per cent in 2009.

Australia's Chief Scientist Ian Chubb said the report findings were ''sad'', but unsurprising, and Australia had failed to address the science and maths gender divide for more than two decades.

Professor Chubb said universities should consider weightings for maths to stop the drain from intermediate maths to basic maths by students trying to maximise their university entry scores.

''We ought to be encouraging able students to stretch themselves to the fullest possible extent. So what do we do? We put them in a framework where we say the score you get to a decimal point will determine your future study options.''

Because intermediate maths received minimal weighting among subjects, students were more likely to take the easier route of basic maths.

''If there is little or no reward for taking the difficult option why would students take it?'' Professor Chubb asked.

He believed schools were discouraging students to aspire to more difficult maths in the race to maximise year 12 scores and said Australia risked creating new generations of students whose lack of basic maths knowledge compromised Australia's international competitiveness.

According to the report ''National Trends in Year 12 Course Completions'' the number of completions of maths and science courses across years 11 and 12 was stable but not keeping up with trends in demand for science, engineering and health courses at university level.

The report warned ''Many new students entering university may be under prepared for study in quantitative fields''.

Professor Chubb said it was ''a classic case of cost shifting'' where universities were having to bring under-prepared maths and science students up to speed in order to commence studying. But he warned ''maths is a cultural issue - you study it through school and you can't just pick it up over three weeks through Christmas''.

Since taking the role as Chief Scientist, Professor Chubb had been lobbying government to address Australia's falling science performance and perceptions that maths and science just weren't ''cool''.

His report to government on how to make science more attractive to students was delivered in March and he was hopeful next week's federal budget would provide extra funding. He will present his broader ''Health of Australian Science'' manifesto to the government later this month.