Chief Scientist’s visit

Australia’s Chief Scientist and current Victorian of the Year, Dr Alan Finkel AO, delivered a thought-provoking address to the Melbourne Grammar School Foundation’s 2016 Annual General Meeting and praised the plans for the new Geoff Handbury Science & Technology Hub, saying that he was “awed by this vision for science education”.

With his extensive science background as an entrepreneur, engineer, neuroscientist and educator, Dr Finkel highlighted the importance of a scientific education for all Australian students, but he was also clear that “a science graduate does not have to become a scientist”. 

“This could be the greatest school science facility in the world. There would still be many students who complete the programme and gravitate to Commerce or Arts, and that is exactly as it should be,” he said. “Their science education would not be a waste. If it informed their approach with critical thinking, fired their interest in new technologies and opened their horizons to new careers, then I’d say that it was a resounding success. There are so many careers that benefit from a good science training.”

The challenge of change

Dr Finkel acknowledged both the excitement and the anxiety that is generated by the “truly staggering pace” of technological progress. “More than five million jobs – that’s close to 40 per cent of the jobs we do today in Australia – are considered likely to disappear by 2030,” he said. “Think about it, a child born today might never see a human being turn a key in a car door; the next generation might never stop at a petrol station and the generation after that might never see a human being driving a car at all! That’s our world and it is amazing. As a parent, of course, it’s just plain terrifying […] and you start to worry that the things that our generation can teach are no longer the things that our children need to learn.”

However, Dr Finkel was quick to reassure parents that, while technology may be constantly on the move, the basic biology of the human child has not changed one bit. “Children are curious. They are creative. They want human contact most of all. If children haven’t changed, then neither has the core function of education,” he said.

What makes a great science programme?

In Dr Finkel’s view, there are two fundamental principles that underpin a great school science programme. “The first principle is that you can’t make children do something because it is good for them and you want them to do it.

You know this because you’ve packed a healthy lunchbox, sent them off with kale and quinoa salad – and you know what is going to come home! By the same token, if we make science and mathematics seem boring and irrelevant, children will exercise their right to do something else. We have to make it enthralling, accessible and relevant if we want the lessons to stick,” he explained.

The second principle is that you cannot limit yourself to the things with instant appeal. “You don’t need to give students an endless series of entertainments. We need to inspire the passion that endures a lifetime: resilient through set-backs, worthy of hard work and delightful in a new way every day. That means content knowledge – as unfashionable as it is to say it. Deep content knowledge – in English, in mathematics and in science,” he said.

Hallmarks of an exemplary approach

Put these two principles together and for Dr Finkel you have “all the knowledge you need to start planning a great science programme”. Such a programme is characterised by: “A robust modern curriculum, instilling deep content knowledge, as well as critical thinking skills; well-equipped classrooms where students are excited to learn; an emphasis on solving real-world challenges that connect to students’ lives; parents who invest in their children through their discussions at home and their commitment to their school; and most importantly of all, great teachers who introduce complex concepts in compelling ways.”

In closing, Dr Finkel spoke of his philosophy of informed optimism “‘Informed’ because science, innovation and life itself are the wellspring of my experience; ‘optimism’ because the world can undoubtedly be made better by the efforts and imagination of human beings. I hope that’s how every student who comes to Melbourne Grammar School will look out on the world,” he said.