The best science and maths teachers are the ones that are taught science and maths well – giving them the confidence to enthuse new generations of students.
A national conference held this week in Canberra is matching a group of 35 high school science and maths teachers from across the country with mentors in a bid to better support high-level teaching and learning across Australian schools.
The program aims to break a vicious cycle of under-prepared and unsupported teachers failing to spark interest in the subjects among students – leading to fewer potential teaching graduates wanting to specialise in maths and science subjects.
The University of Canberra is the lead partner in the design and delivery of the program in collaboration with Questacon, the Australian National University, the Australian Science Teachers Association and the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers.
University of Canberra professor of education and project director Professor Michael Gaffney said that the "preparation of maths and science teachers is critical to ensure the next generation is best-equipped for the increasingly scientific, technological and mathematical demands of their day to day life, as well as their workplaces".
"It is particularly important that we support our beginning teachers, as well as those teaching out of their field."
The program is part of a larger project funded by the Commonwealth through the Australian Maths and Science Partnerships Program, and will this week bring together researchers, practitioners and professional associations to put practical steps in place to improve the quality of science and maths teaching in Australian schools.
The project is also partnering with the California-based New Teacher Center and Exploratorium and combines hands-on inquiry-based approaches – facilitated through Questacon workshops – with targeted face-to-face and online mentoring support.
Dr Alyson Mike who runs Online Professional Development from the Santa Cruz centre said that it was crucial new teachers coming into the classroom were given enough support to want to stay in the profession – with maths and science teachers traditionally suffering among the highest attrition rates.
"We need a grassroots approach to break this cycle, and this project appeals because it is very much on that right track. If you have a teacher teaching out of their subject areas or new to science or math teaching, you need to get in and spark their interest or engage them. If you can elicit that excitement in adults, then it moves to the students more easily."
Chief executive of the Australian Association of Maths Teachers Will Morony said schools themselves had a role to play in better supporting their maths and science staff.
"Schools need to take some of the responsibility and take these subjects seriously. You have teachers lacking in confidence and not having a maths background who are still trying their best, and the schools must invest in them to better develop their skills. A lot of them need that extra dimension of professional development in their tool kits so they can build their own knowledge and confidence to pass on to the kids."
One of the selected mentors taking part in the program is Burgmann Anglican School's Lynn Walker – a former CSIRO scientist who moved into teaching later in her career.
While Dr Walker entered the profession with exemplary subject knowledge, she said the professional development she received on the teaching side made her want to give back.
She has been matched with Goulburn high school biology teacher Joseph Stephens.
Mr Stephens said he was thrilled to take part in the mentoring program and believed that translating enthusiasm for science in the classroom had its challenges.
"Science subjects suffer from the stigma that they are both hard and boring," Mr Stephens said.
"I think it is great to be able to open a dialogue up with a mentor about the challenges I face and get some advice and experience on how to overcome them."