Science and maths education in Australia is at a difficult point, according to research showing nearly half of maths and ICT teachers are not specialists and many students have negative experiences of the subjects at school.
Professor Robert Fitzgerald, director of the University of Canberra's two-year-old INSPIRE Centre has been given nearly $1.5 million from the federal government to bring back an Australian "fascination" with maths and sciences.
The centre, a partnership with the ACT government and the University of Canberra, has the job of delivering professional education and applied research in information and communication technology (ICT) in education, and opened in June 2012.
Professor Fitzgerald said the old textbook approach "was not working" and the new research would be about modelling teaching on the excitement of real scientists making new discoveries.
He said scientists and mathematicians asked big questions and "that’s something we need to find ways of translating to the classroom, we have to avoid relying on didactic and textbook-driven models of teaching maths and science," he said.
The research aims to build new professional development and mentoring for science, maths, technology and engineering teachers.
The challenge is great, according to Professor Fitzgerald. "It is difficult to get qualified teachers, particularly when we move into rural and remote schools and we have a high proportion of teachers teaching out of field," he said.
According to an Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute report, 40 per cent of classroom teachers were not qualified to teach the subject in years 7-10 maths classes.
Further, Australian Council for Education and Research figures show that 58 per cent of years 7-10 ICT teachers were not qualified in the subject.
"One of the challenges teachers face, particularly in remote schools, is they may be the only science or maths teacher, so we want to build a community of practice for these folk," Professor Fitzgerald said.
He also said new discoveries were key to keeping science and technology compelling to students.
"We are asking, how do we support teachers, particularly with the rapid changes in science and technology, and how do we ensure their disciplinary knowledge is as current as it can be," Professor Fitzgerald said.
The project was about the greater public good, he said, and that an informed population was needed to face global problems.
"This is not just about making more mathematicians and scientists, it is about building scientific and mathematic dispositions in everyday life," Professor Fitzgerald said.
A recent CSIRO study of community attitudes to science found nearly all surveyed said they had a negative experience in school-level science classes, finding "attitudes to science at school are a major predictor of attitudes to science later in life".
The paper also found 40 per cent of the population was disengaged from science, with younger people becoming increasingly disengaged.
The new funding was announced on Thursday as part of the $16.4 million Australian Maths and Science Partnerships Program, aimed at boosting maths and science through schools and projects over the next four years.
Questacon, the Australian National University, the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers and the Australian Science Teachers Association will also be involved in the project.
The project will also partner with the well-regarded Exploratorium Teacher Institute model in San Francisco, and look into intensive workshops as well as face-to-face and digital teaching resources that already exist.