This is how you should choose your Year 11 and 12 electives, according to Australia’s Chief Scientist

A Year 10 student recently wrote a letter to Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, anxious about what subjects to choose for Year 11 and 12. His response – which appears in the latest issue of Cosmos magazine and was published online today by Australia’s Science Channel – contains some amazing gems of wisdom that we had to share!

So what was Dr Finkel’s wise advice? First, that mathematics and English are the two most fundamental subjects, and that they will set you up for everything else. “Mastery of language” is crucial for everything you’ll do, he explained, adding that maths is a language in itself. “I can’t overemphasise that for many tertiary study fields you must have strong knowledge of mathematics. These include medicine, science, engineering, economics and commerce,” Dr Finkel wrote.

Next up, he reckons you should choose studies that are both diverse and challenging. “I don’t know why, but some well-meaning advisors will suggest that you pick easy subjects so that you will achieve a higher raw score. Don’t do that!” Instead of thinking in terms of hard or easy, Dr Finkel suggests considering the opportunities your subject choices could open up down the track. “Every time you drop an enabling subject – bang! a door of opportunity slams shut.”

“Every time you drop an enabling subject – bang! a door of opportunity slams shut.”

Dr Finkel also reminded the Year 10 student (and all of us!) that we aren’t just “intellectual robots” and so should consider subjects, like music and sports, that fulfil us in “mind, body and emotion”.

His parting pearl of wisdom? That the days of your degree choice dictating your career path are over. “You might do science but pivot into business. You might do engineering but pivot into politics. You might do accounting but pivot into a job that hasn’t been invented yet,” he wrote.

This isn’t the first time Dr Finkel, who was appointed Chief Scientist back in January 2016, has offered his two-cents on STEM education (it’s a part of his job description, after all). Just last month, he warned parents and teachers that it was “cruel” to let students drop out of maths before they fully understood the lifelong consequences of that decision. A few weeks earlier, he penned an article in the Conversation about the value of being disciplined in education, especially maths.

Dr Finkel has a background as an entrepreneur, engineer, neuroscientist and educator. He has a PhD in electrical engineering from Monash University and worked as a postdoctoral research fellow in neuroscience at the Australian National University.

You can read his letter in full on Australia’s Science Channel here.

Gemma Chilton

Author: Gemma Chilton

Gemma has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology, Sydney and spent a semester studying environmental journalism in Denmark. She has been writing about science and engineering for over a decade.

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