By Prof Jon Hickford
NZIAHS President

We should all be concerned about the education and training of the young people who will become the scientists who succeed us.  Two issues making headlines in recent days therefore should at least attract our critical attention, if they don’t cause disquiet or raise our hackles.

First, Massey University is seeking feedback from staff and students on a discussion document which deals with “a future academic plan for the College of Sciences”.   The duplication of resources and effort at the Auckland and Manawatu campuses will be eliminated under the plan being discussed.

Fair to say, the document insists it is not a proposal for change.  Not this year, anyway.  Its contents should be regarded as “potential changes” which are being “suggested”.  If the changes are adopted, they would not come into effect until the beginning of 2021 at the earliest.

Second, the Ministry of Education is proposing several changes to NCEA Level One, including the merging of several subjects to be phased in over the next five years.

Among the proposed changes: physics, chemistry, biology and space science will all be absorbed into a single “science” subject.

In both cases, nothing has been finalised. But the release of discussion papers too often is an exercise to give the impression those affected are being given an opportunity to contribute to a decision that already has been taken.

Goodbye to duplication

The Massey University paper is written in the turgid language of the bureaucrat.  It says:

“The College of Sciences (CoS) Strategic Plan 2018-2022 describes the strategic direction for the College aligned with the Massey University Strategy 2018-2022. The CoS Plan articulates six strategic priorities underpinning the College’s ambitions to provide transformative learning solutions, produce new knowledge and solutions to globally relevant fundamental and applied scientific challenges, and strengthen the global reach and impact of Massey University’s scientific activities.

“Key initiatives include a transformation of the CoS academic portfolio aligned with the needs and expectations of students; strengthening the alignment of activities on individual campuses with areas of specialisation, student demand and opportunity; and work to achieve a sustainable operating (financial) model.

“Curricular transformation is well underway including the new First Year Science Curriculum (2020 implementation), a reshaping of Majors in the BSc, the launch of new and revised qualifications (e.g. Bachelor of Animal Science, Bachelor of Horticulture), and ongoing work to strengthen other qualifications (e.g. Master of Science, Bachelor of Construction).

“Whilst we should be confident that these initiatives are positioning the CoS for a successful future, we also recognise that the College must continue to evolve in line with changes to internal and external factors. Our operating environment continues to be very challenging with annual increases in revenue not keeping pace with the rise in costs.”

In other words, this is all about money.  Inflation-adjusted funding has been shrinking but university administrators can’t raise student fees enough to offset this.

Domestic student numbers have remained much the same from year to year.

The College’s finances are further strained by the duplication of disciplines on the Auckland and Manawatu campuses, each with its own academic and technical staff as well as specialised equipment and infrastructure to support teaching and research activities. Furthermore, digital and physical infrastructure costs have risen substantially over the last two years.

The plan (or suggestion) is to get rid of the duplication.

The Auckland campus would focus on computational and information sciences and further development of engineering and the built environment.

The Manawatū campus would focus on agrifood, environmental and life sciences activities.  Massey’s ambition is to fortify the university’s national and global standing in these areas, building its strengths in agriculture (science and business), veterinary medicine, animal science, food science and technology and the physical and biological sciences.

The discussion paper inevitably has triggered criticisms from affected staff, among others, but universities around the world are grappling with similar budgetary problems. To resolve them they are reducing their academic staff/student ratios (and hence the quality of their education) while students pay more.  It’s a shame.

NCEA science shakeup 

The Ministry of Education meanwhile has proposed dropping several subjects from NCEA level 1 in order to make it a foundation qualification with fewer achievement standards covering a broader range of content. For science this means dropping physics, chemistry, biology and earth and space science from level 1 and retaining just science and agricultural and horticultural science.

The co-chairman of Secondary Chemistry Teachers of New Zealand, Ian Torrie, told Radio New Zealand about 96 per cent of feedback to the association was opposed to plans that would leave science with just four level 1 achievement standards covering the ideas that underpin the subject, but not specific knowledge about subjects like physics and chemistry.

“We’re concerned that future students will be able to choose a course from 10 languages, five arts, five social sciences, four technologies but there’s only one science subject that they can do,” he said. “We’re really concerned that this will have huge impacts on future numbers of science, engineering and medical graduates.”

This is happening at a time when OECD results of its seventh Programme for International Student Assessment survey show 15-year-old New Zealanders have declined in mathematics, reading and science.  This decline has persisted in each survey since the first PISA survey in 2000, when our youngsters were praised for being star performers.

Dr Alison Campbell, a Senior University of Waikato biological sciences lecturer, addressed teaching-related issues in an article published on BioBlog (HERE).  She hoped to encourage critical thinking in considering scientific papers that are relevant to the Level 3 curriculum and to Scholarship.

Dr Campbell champions greater emphasis on teaching what science is, how it works, why it is such a powerful tool for understanding the world around it, and that it is a human/social endeavour. Knowledge of content is important, she says, but all students need to be science-literate, able to critically evaluate science ideas and processes; to communicate about science; and that people develop our scientific knowledge – and their ideas change over time.

This, and recent discussions about “fake news” and the coronavirus outbreak, led me to think about what we might want from our school science system. Having had two children pass through NCEA Level 1-3 science courses, and with another still in the system, I must question whether it has served them well. The answer is no.

The NCEA system consists of “packets of knowledge” that are assessed and re-assessed to the point of distraction. Even my science-oriented older son found this an onerous burden. I kept asking myself what the system was trying to achieve, as did my children.  The joy of learning about science was gone and – my input to their education aside – I doubt they have any understanding of the purpose of learning what they did.

This is not to belittle their teachers, who were outstanding in their professionalism and skill. They were respected and loved by my sons, but equally burdened by the needless assessment.

Part of the challenge in science is that the world is now awash with information. As I explain to the agricultural science students at Lincoln, a vast amount of it is now readily accessible from their cell-phones, and an internet search deliver “facts” about nearly anything. This is fantastic, but what those students seem to lack is the ability to find knowledge and truth in that sea of information.

What is more, they are challenged when it comes to thinking outside of the box as might be required in research.  This is hardly surprising, given the focus of NCEA. To illustrate this, I am routinely asked: “what do we need to know to pass?”  My usual answer of “everything, plus a little bit more” doesn’t please them at all, but that is because they haven’t been taught in school to think outside the box – or the “standard”, to use NCEA-speak.

It is not that these students are stupid.  Far from it.  But many of them don’t understand why we study science. I therefore support the idea that they need to be better informed about the nature of science and how it works, to pick up on Dr Campbell’s idea.

It isn’t only the students who will move on to careers in science who need this, but everyone who passes through school. There is no point in doing science if you don’t understand why or what it enables in later life, although that is true of anything they study.

I don’t have space here to give a lesson on the value of science to everyone in society, but like many career scientists I despair at the thought that we might be slipping into a post-enlightenment world, where celebrities and influencers rule over those who peddle verifiable facts and understanding.  I am therefore anxious that education authorities get the science curriculum right and ensure children are given a solid grounding in the purpose of science and why it is important to us all.