The Primary Industry Centre for Science Education (PICSE) is a National Strategy collaboration between universities, their regional communities and local primary industries, to attract students into tertiary science and to increase the number of skilled professionals in agribusiness and research institutions.
The University of New England (UNE) is a host of one of the Activity Centres that form part of PICSE. As part of this role they host a Science Investigation Awards (SIA) program annually involving primary and high schools to encourage students to broaden their horizons and increase their awareness of future career opportunities in science.
In 2012, with support from the Foundation, the UNE expanded their SIA program to include rural and socio-economically disadvantaged schools. The Foundation provided a grant of $40K over two years through the education program to support this expansion.
The UNE is based in Northern NSW and has significant number of rural areas in its catchment area of North-West and North NSW. As result, the UNE has become highly proficient in the delivery of distance education and has been consistently rated 5-stars in The Good Universities Guide in ‘graduate satisfaction’.
The UNE’s School of Environmental and Rural Science is one of the most highly regarded in Australia. It is this department that hosts the PISCE learning centre. The centre saw a need to include rural schools rated below average on the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) in its program as a means of addressing this demographics underrepresentation in tertiary education and boost the numbers of those entering local primary industries.
The aim of this project was to engage with junior secondary students, teachers and their families from remote, disadvantaged and low socio-economic groups in the North West of NSW and incorporate them into the successful SIA program of PICSE as a way of linking them to tertiary education staff, facilities and opportunities and subsequent employment in primary industries.: Specific goals of the project were to:
- build aspirations for university study for students from low SES and rural backgrounds
- mentor 10 students in projects for the SIA Awards
- build students confidence in their scientific abilities and presentation skills
- introduce students to university
- celebrate remote student achievements in science.
In 2012, with support from the Foundation, the UNE expanded their SIA program to include rural and socio-economically disadvantaged schools. The Foundation provided a grant of $40K over two years to support this expansion.
The UNE employed a Science Education Officer (SEO) to visit rural schools and mentor students into the SIA program. The SEO supplied the necessary material for participation in the SIA program and in conjunction with science teachers, mentored students in the scientific method through each phase of the project. On the day of the UNE hosted awards ceremony, students participated in on campus science activities designed to introduce students to university life.
The SIA provided each student with the opportunity to give a 10 minute project presentation to a panel of scientists who would judge and provide constructive feedback on their project. Following the presentations the rural students held a special awards ceremony following the main event.
High school interest was significantly higher than anticipated with 30 students mentored from 15 rural schools previously uninvolved in the program. The program highlighted a clear demand for this type of outreach from universities to schools in rural and low socio-economic areas; each participating school expressed an interest in their continued involvement with the program in the years ahead.
Student and teacher feedback was highly positive with 79% of students claiming their participation increased their interest in science and 90% saying it improved their understanding of science’s relevance to their lives. Students especially valued the feedback from the panel of judges and the judges themselves saw great value in the program and wished for continued participation.
The program also demonstrated its sustainability; following a loss of financial support from the PICSE program, the UNE was able to leverage further funding from the Commonwealth’s Higher Education, Participation and Partnership Program (HEPPP). The program has since been renamed Growing Regional and Agricultural Students in Science or UNE GRASS.
The UNE’s SIA program was a great success; it demonstrated a clear and ongoing demand for this type of program and feedback from all sectors validates both the programs objectives and UNE’s execution.
The UNE plans to measure the long-term effectiveness of the program by tracking the number of former participants that enter primary industry related tertiary education. The demand for primary industry scientists is at an all-time high due to the challenges presented by food security and climate change.
Programs such as UNE GRASS represent long-term capacity building for the tackling of these challenges into the future.