The fall in enrolments in high-level maths, science and technology courses for the HSC may be because students are deciding the subjects are not particularly relevant to their daily lives as early as year 7.
Students' attitudes towards STEM subjects also change considerably over their first year of high school, a new study has found, suggesting changing teaching practices at the beginning of year 7 could have a significant effect on subject choices later.
"As they come into year 7, [students] start with a positive outlook on school in general and then things tend to change within that first year," said JohnPaul Kennedy, lead author of the study, published in Research in Science Education.
The study tracked 363 NSW students' attitudes towards academic subjects over the first four years of high school, looking at enjoyability, self-efficacy, perceived difficulty, usefulness for personal career, usefulness for a specific career in that domain, relevance to society and intention to continue with study beyond compulsory education.
While students' perceptions of the personal usefulness and usefulness for specific careers of maths increased between the first and second semesters of year 7, their perception of its relevance declined significantly over time.
Similarly, students' perceptions of the relevance and usefulness of technology subjects declined over time.
For science, although students' perceptions of usefulness for specific careers increased over the course of year 7, female students reported far lower enjoyability and self-efficacy than male students.
"It seems to be that if students don't see how [the subject] can be applied to their day-to-day lives, it gets packaged up [and] put on the shelf ... what seems to be the case with maths at least is they know it's going to be useful but don't find it particularly relevant to them right now, so they choose the path of least resistance," said Mr Kennedy, who is a PhD researcher at the University of New England and head of science at Illawarra Grammar School.
Only 4.18 per cent of HSC students did the highest-level maths subject Maths Extension 2 last year, down from 4.58 per cent of students in 2007.
More than 41 per cent of the 2017 cohort did the low-level non-calculus course Maths General 2.
There was also a fall in the proportion of HSC students doing physics, chemistry, engineering and technology subjects.
Mr Kennedy said the latest findings suggest that increasing the immediate relevance of STEM subjects by increasing interdisciplinary projects that require students to "bring knowledge from different areas and find links" could be effective in increasing take-up of higher-level maths and science subjects in years 11 and 12.
Mr Kennedy said the findings could be interpreted in two ways: "One is that the problem is not with maths teaching or classrooms but with the curriculum [being too theoretical] and another way of looking at the findings is that the curriculum is fine and it's the teachers who are struggling to make it relevant to the kids.
"It's probably a combination of both those things.
"One of the other big impacts on enrolments is that there are just so many [subject] options now, so many pathways through years 11 and 12.
"So you're now offering various levels of maths and science extension but you don't move the goalposts at the end, the aim is still to get a high ATAR. Parents and students are going to find ways to game the system."
Mr Kennedy said proposals to make maths compulsory in years 11 and 12 were unlikely to solve the problem of disengagement.
"Given enjoyability and relevance are really key to encouraging people showing the intentionality to continue a subject beyond school, forcing them to study it will have a negative impact on enjoyability and no impact on relevance," Mr Kennedy said.
"The key is improving intentions and they don't change overnight. You've got to have well-informed, well-resourced teachers who are given the professional courtesy and time to develop the curriculum to suit their kids in the classroom.
"From a [NSW Education Standards Authority] point of view, what we need is less regulation and more freedom and more trust."
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