Science leader targets wider diversity amongst scientists - and more fun

The Prime Minister’s new Chief Science Advisor has set out ambitious goals for change in the education system, including making science more fun to study, and blending Te Ao Māori knowledge with traditional science.

Professor Juliet Gerrard wants to reframe teaching to encourage more critical thinking and inclusive practices, and for the education sector to help make those changes. Her vision also includes having more Māori and Pasifika people in science, as well as more women.

"Most of our imagery of senior scientists is of older white males, and that’s because historically that’s what it has been. Just Google 'scientist' and that’s the kind of image you will find online - often with white beards."

Professor Gerrard says science is critical for the future of New Zealand, and an essential foundation for raising educational achievement.

"It must be inclusive and go beyond the traditional sources of received wisdom. Science is also fun, and learning about it should be fun for students, which enables deep engagement with the material and extends their comfort zone."

 

uLearn 2018: Juliet Gerrard on science and education

She began her three-year term as the PM’s Chief Science Advisor, Kaitohutohu Mātanga Pūtaiao Matua ki te Pirimia, in July. A biochemist, she was the Associate Dean of Research at the University of Auckland before taking up this role, and previously served as chair of the Marsden Fund Council. She has been travelling the country to survey the science landscape, and hopes to build partnerships in communities that are going to shift that landscape.

Since she graduated and began her career, she’s witnessed a tidal change. A growing portion of New Zealand’s senior scientists are women - currently 32% - but she says a lot more is still to be done, and not just with girls and women.

"I would like to see greater support for female students studying science subjects, as well as wider representation including, for example, people with disabilities," Juliet says.

"However, we need to move beyond gender, and make STEM subjects a welcoming place for Māori and Pacific students - not an inaccessible realm, as it largely is now. We can do that by making the curriculum more culturally relevant to them."

While nearly a quarter of the New Zealand population identified as Māori or Pasifika (Source: 2013 Census), individuals from these groups make up 2.3% of the scientific work-force (Source: Sommer, 2010).

Professor Gerrard knows how it feels to be part of a minority. "As a woman in a field where most are European and male, I gained empathy for the groups who are not currently well represented, including women, Māori and Pacific people," she says.

She describes the current science education system as having a 'tyranny of content', which is holding student achievement back.

"In schools, I would like to see teachers supporting self-driven learning, as learning coaches.

"Preparing for the future is partly about planning for things we don’t yet know, or are unaware of yet. Being able to make sense of what we will discover and confront will be led by science, and that requires critical thinking skills.

“My challenge to educators is: how do we create an environment that encourages critical thinking and supports students to constructively challenge everything? How do we coax them out of their comfort zones?

"When they do leave their comfort zones, they really fly because their discoveries are exciting, and learning accelerates.

"The Māori view of science is broadening our conversation to include more knowledge frameworks, and that is a positive development. Traditionally, Western science likes to pull things apart, with scientists beavering away in the lab, in isolation. It is reductionist.

"I think that one of the reasons for lack of global action on climate change is due to this approach.

"In Matauranga Māori, we have a framework of knowledge that is more integrated and holistic, so there is value in incorporating greater integration of Māori values and knowledge in areas such as research, resource management and policy development in areas such as health and education as well as science. But it must be integrated from the beginning, not added on at the last minute."

She sees a huge role for virtual reality and expanded reality technology in learning, and she has herself developed a game in collaboration with a colleague.

So how will her vision for change be implemented? New Zealand has 15 departmental science advisors in key agencies of the public service, including the Ministry of Education, and Juliet has been connecting with them to understand their role and listen to their views on how science can make a difference to the country’s future. She is developing a list of priority projects to discuss with the Prime Minister.

She wants to see the team of advisors working collectively and collaboratively. Stuart McNaughton is chief science advisor for the Ministry of Education. He says that in designing the future of education, the ministry is looking for more voices that have not been heard in the past, and were not represented.

"We will be integrating Te Ao Māori with Te Ao Pākeha, as well as knowledge systems of the Pacific community, and building partnerships that gather and integrate that diversity of knowledge into our planning for the strategic direction of education. We look forward to working with Professor Gerrard in this exciting new direction," he says.

Juliet was a guest speaker at the recent uLearn18 education conference in Auckland, and her presentation was received very positively. "There is clearly a great passion for change across the country," she says.

 

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