AUSTRALIA: Oxford don heads science centre

Professor Martin Westwell is the foundation head of the Centre for Science Education in the 21st century, launched last month at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. Westwell, formerly deputy director of the Institute for the Future of the Mind at Oxford University, says the centre will use current evidence to help inform decisions in science education. “The choices and decisions made today will shape tomorrow,” he says.

After completing his degree and PhD in organic chemistry at Cambridge University, Westwell moved to Oxford where, as a research fellow, he undertook a number of research projects ranging from tropical diseases to Alzheimer’s and began work in science education and “public-engagement-with-science” before leaving academia for the biotech industry. He was then with a number of science education organisations.

Westwell returned to Oxford and the Future of the Mind Institute in 2005, working with the UK government, teachers, parents and others, including several visits to South Australia to boost collaborations with Oxford. He frequently addresses specialist education and scientific meetings and is the winner of several awards for communicating science to non-scientists, including being named The Times & Novartis Scientist of the New Century in 1999 and being short-listed for the Parliamentary Science Writer of the Year award in the UK last year.

“I was doing work at Oxford on the future and the way young people think, and there was a natural overlap between that and the centre that Flinders was establishing,” he says. “There is a willingness in South Australia to think about the future and embrace change.”

The Flinders centre will move into its new buildings early next year and meantime Westwell and his deputy, Associate Professor Debra Panizzon, are working out of Flinders’ engineering department. He says that provides the centre with independence so it is not seen as part of the science or education faculties, and that he and Panizzon are not viewed as science or education researchers.

“The centre will function as a generator and communicator of creative ideas and experimental practices while promoting innovation and best practice in science education. There is a body of evidence for us to draw on to assist those making decisions, whether that be policy-makers, principals, parents or faculties who will engage with the evidence when they are thinking about the future of science education.”

Rather than build up a group of its own researchers, Westwell says the centre aims to have a small team – two at present – and then hire experts, either from within or outside the state and internationally, to work on particular projects for the length of the project.

One of the first is looking at the future of science education in schools. What happens in schools affects what happens in higher education and the reverse is also true, he says. In the junior years of high school, science is taught as a broad subject but by the final years, students are expected to study the traditional separate specialist fields such as chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics because that is what the universities demand.

“This compartmentalisation of science in universities has a massive impact on what happens in schools and the way employers and school children see science and technology. We are working in that area to see how it might be changed.”

Westwell says the centre is not a provider of education and training itself but will act as a catalyst and a resource for the education sector through its location at Flinders and its connections with schools and universities. The broad approach taken is multi-disciplinary, collaborative, responsive and outcomes-focused.

“We are developing a research programme and plan to collaborate on projects with Finders’ academics and researchers, and with external partners from schools, industry and relevant professional bodies,” he says. “The focus is on innovative and high quality teaching and learning, drawing on research and best practice in Australia and overseas, and pioneering new methods and curricula.”

The world is changing at an increasingly fast pace and, to a large extent, this change is driven by developments in science and technology. Changes in science and technology already have a profound influence on society and the economy, and this is likely to increase in the future.

“It is important that today’s young Australians will be in a position to make choices tomorrow about the way they want to live their lives and the jobs that they do so that they can prosper in the dynamic and technological world of the future,” he says. “Uncertainty is always a factor that needs to be taken into consideration when thinking about the future but this uncertainty can be reduced by taking the research findings from around the world and using them to inform our thinking and planning.”

The centre will help inform the decision-making in science education of individual learners, parents, teachers, principals, industry and the government: “Where robust indications about the future do not exist, the centre will initiate research projects to obtain the necessary evidence,” Westwell says.