Science education in New Zealand is in reasonable shape but too many people are failing, a report released today says.
The Prime Minister's chief science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, said top students did well compared with overseas but there was a large number that did poorly, in which Maori and Pasifika students were over-represented.
"In my view school science education in New Zealand is not in terrible shape. Indeed by international standards we perform well, but unfortunately we have a long tail of underachievement, and we need to think now about the challenges that are emerging," he said in the report.
Sir Peter said there was an international consensus that a strong science education system in the school years was a necessary prerequisite to having an economy based on knowledge and innovation.
"Increasingly the challenges we face as a community - be it at the global level such as dealing with climate change or at the local level such as the problems of an ageing population, of environmental degradation, or of enhancing our economic productivity through science and innovation - all depend on science," he said.
"There is no challenge affecting our society which does not have science and technology associated with finding an appropriate solution. Accordingly, the Platonic view that certain areas of knowledge can be left to experts alone is not acceptable in a modern democracy.
"I contend that all citizens need to have some level of understanding of the scientific issues that governments and society confront."
At primary school level, Sir Peter suggested many schools might need to develop a "science champion" among their teachers as most teachers came from humanities backgrounds and might not be able to answer children's questions effectively.
At secondary schools, Sir Peter said it was important to retain good, experienced science teachers, though continued professional development was also important due to the pace of change in the science world.
"What a biology graduate knew twenty years ago is of little relevance to the biology of this decade. If teaching does not occur within the realm of relevance then the pupil cannot be engaged and encouraged by it."
Access to new technologies was also important, Sir Peter said.
"Modern science technologies are often expensive, and yet to teach about a subject such as DNA without the student or the teacher having access to laboratories to demonstrate key points about DNA is in fact very inhibiting."
He said few science teachers were fluent in Maori language and Te Reo-only schools might want to think about whether teaching of science in such schools should be in English.
The report released today was developed in conjunction with the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Ministry for Science and Innovation.