Research on the achievement of rural and remote students in science and mathematics is located within a context of falling levels of participation in physical science and mathematics courses in Australian schools, and underrepresentation of rural students in higher education. International studies such as the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA), have reported lower levels of mathematical and scientific literacy in Australian students from rural and remote schools (Thomson et al, 2011). The SiMERR national survey of science, mathematics and ICT education in rural and regional Australia (Lyons et al, 2006) identified factors affecting student achievement in rural and remote schools. Many of the issues faced by rural and remote students in their schools are likely to have implications on their university enrolments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses. For example, rural and remote students are less likely to attend university in general than their city counterparts and higher university attrition rates have been reported for remote students nationally.
This paper examines the responses of a sample of rural/remote Australian first year STEM students at Australian universities to two questions. These related to their intentions to complete the course; and whether - and if so, why- they had ever considered withdrawing from their course. Results indicated that rural students who were still in their course by the end of first year were no more or less likely to consider withdrawing than were their peers from more populous centres. However, almost 20% of the rural cohort had considered withdrawing at some stage in their course, and their explanations provide insights into the reasoning of those who may not persist with their courses at university.
These results, in the context of the greater attrition rate of remote students from university, point to the need to identify factors that positively impact on rural and remote students' interest and achievement in science and mathematics. It also highlights a need for future research into the particular issues remote students may face in deciding whether or not to do science at the two key transition points of senior school and university/TAFE studies, and whether or not to persist in their tertiary studies.
This paper is positioned at the intersection of two problems in Australian education. The first is a context of falling levels of participation in physical science and mathematics courses in Australian universities. The second is persistent inequitable access to, and retention in, tertiary education for students from rural and remote areas. Despite considerable research attention to both of these areas over recent years these problems have thus far proved to be intractable.
This paper therefore aims to briefly review the relevant Australian literature pertaining to these issues; that is, declining STEM enrolments, and the underrepresentation and retention of rural/remote students in higher education. Given the related problems in these two overlapping domains, we then explore the views of first year rural students enrolled in STEM courses, in relation to their intentions of withdrawing (or not) and the associated reasons for their views.