Science subject comes under fire

There are concerns that the subject's curriculum panders to the mining industry.
There are concerns that the subject's curriculum panders to the mining industry.

THE national curriculum panders to the mining industry in the senior secondary subject Earth and Environmental Science with climate change, sustainability and biodiversity barely rating a mention, according to concerned Victorian teachers.

Earth and Environmental Science will be one of four science subjects offered in years 11 and 12 in the national curriculum, after the mining industry and environmental groups lobbied for a course in addition to biology, chemistry and physics.

In Victoria — where environmental science has been taught as a stand-alone VCE subject for more than a decade — some teachers fear the draft curriculum is heavily weighted in favour of geology and rock extraction.

"The new course only pays lip service to climate change and ecological sustainability. Biodiversity is barely mentioned even though it is the basis of all food webs," said Jill Dumsday, a VCE environmental science teacher at Camberwell Girls' Grammar.

Environmental science teacher Britt Gow, a member of several panels selected to provide feedback on the draft curriculum, said there was a conflict between the philosophy of the two sciences.

She said students who selected earth science were mainly interested in careers in engineering and mining while those who selected environmental science were often passionate about wildlife and conservation and interested in careers in the emerging "green collar" sector.

However Professor Leah Moore, a member of the curriculum advisory board, said earth science and environmental science were intimately related to one another.

"We have been trying not to favour earth science but strike a balance," Professor Moore said. "Everything that relates to environmental science has implications for all other aspects of the earth system. Climate change has massive implications on things like plants and animals and coastal regions but also the nature of ice sheets and changes to atmospheric and oceanic systems.

"There are some concepts like deep time or geological time — how environments evolve over long periods of time — that are complementary to understanding processes in environmental science. By putting the two together we have a much richer offering than is commonly delivered in environmental science."

She said student numbers had significantly increased in WA when it integrated environmental science into its earth science course.

But Ms Gow, who teaches at Hawkesdale College, said she was concerned one of the textbooks currently used to teach Earth and Environmental Science in Western Australia was partly funded by Woodside Petroleum. Sixteen of the 19 chapters were devoted to earth science and three to climate change, ecosystems, human activity and biodiversity.

She said groups like the Teacher Earth Science Education Program, which is partly funded by Exxon Mobile, The Petroleum Exploration Society of Australia, the Australian Institute of Geoscientists and CSIRO, also provided teachers with free or low-cost professional development.

"It seems to me that the majority of teachers in all other states, apart from Victoria and Tasmania, have a strong bias towards earth science, due to the prevalence of mining industries in those states," Ms Gow said. "They have a whole lot of funding thrown at them from mining companies for personal development and textbooks."

Teacher Earth Science Education Program executive officer Greg McNamara said all of its professional development was peer reviewed by scientists and was not influenced in any way by its partners. "When we were set up we made it quite clear we are not the mouthpiece for big oil, big minerals or big anything else. We are simply interested in making sure teachers get good, balanced training."

Consultation for the draft curriculum closes on July 20.

This story Science subject comes under fire first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.