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Getting excited about science

By Alan Finkel - posted Friday, 16 May 2008

Many of us who come from a science background and work in science are excited by it - what it is, what it achieves and its potential to make a better world.

What challenges us is the difficulty of exciting the next generation who will underpin Australia’s long-term ability to capitalise on its current economic prosperity.

There are two challenges. First, to broaden the reach of science education within the general population. The future voters of this country need to appreciate science and technology so that they can interpret and contribute to the national debates about issues such as vaccination, water desalination and recycling, medical therapies, nuclear energy, environmental sustainability and genetic modification.


The second challenge is to train the future professionals in engineering, science, medicine and technology. We cannot passively adopt overseas technology and expect to be internationally competitive in our manufacturing and resources industries. Instead, we must train the next generation of experts and encourage them to innovate and commercialise their inventions.

Participation rates in secondary school science have been declining steadily, especially in the “enabling” disciplines of physics, chemistry and mathematics. Surprisingly, these key subjects are no longer required for entry into Science, and even Engineering faculties in many cases only require a single high school science subject.

Time and time again it is reported that students do not see science and technology as relevant either to their daily lives or their future careers, despite the fact that they live in a world driven by and dependent on science.

We need to tackle this problem head on - both inside and outside the classroom.

The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) runs the Clunies Ross Extreme Science Experience. Linked to the annual ATSE Clunies Ross Awards for the commercial application of technology, the Extreme Science Experience gives keen students a unique opportunity to interact for a day with Australia's top commercially successful scientists and engineers.

This week, nearly 400 students from Brisbane and Queensland high schools will enjoy “immersion” in real science and technology, participating in interactive workshops with the Award winners. They will learn about the excitement and achievements of real-life scientific work and discovery.


Previous Award winners have included Professor Ian Frazer, developer of the vaccine to prevent Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection that causes cervical cancer, and Dr Peter Farrell, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of ResMed, who pioneered the manufacture of devices to treat obstructive sleep apnoea.

Extreme Science Experience - in its third year - extends and develops some of the very successful extra-curricular activities that have become part of Australia’s science education focus.

Unfortunately, these innovative extracurricular activities do not reach all secondary school students, appeal mainly to students who already have a commitment to science and technology, and are of limited duration.

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About the Author

Dr Alan Finkel AM FTSE, an electrical engineer and neuroscientist, is Chancellor of Monash University, Chairman of the National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse, a Governor of the ATSE Clunies Ross Foundation, Chairman of the Australian Course in Advanced Neuroscience and a Board Member and Governor of the Florey Neuroscience Institutes. He is founder and publisher of Cosmos, a popular magazine of science in society, and G, a lifestyle magazine for sustainable living.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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