Science

Address: We need to challenge students to 'be the best they can be'

Scientia Professor Michelle Simmons giving the NSW Australia Day Address
Tuesday, 24 January, 2017
Steve Offner

UNSW quantum physicist Michelle Simmons has delivered the 2017 Australia Day address for NSW, urging young people to tackle life's hardest tasks and to strive to be the best they can be.

Scientia Professor Simmons, the first female scientist to deliver the address in its 20-year history, said intellectual independence, innate optimism and willingness to “give it a go” made Australia the best country in the world to do research.

But the UK-born scientist, who is leading the world in the race to build a prototype quantum computer, warned that Australia’s educators were jeopardising the future by lowering the expectations they set for students.

“Great teachers with high expectations challenge their students to be the best they can be,” Professor Simmons said. ”However, equally important are the curricula that they teach.

“One of the few things that horrified me when I arrived in Australia was to discover that several years ago the high school physics curriculum was ‘feminised’. In other words, to make it more appealing to girls, our curricula designers in the bureaucracy substituted formulae with essays.

“From the students coming to university, I see little evidence that this has made any difference and indeed I see many students complaining that the physics curriculum has left them ill-equipped for university,” she told an audience at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

“There is a big cost in this type of thinking. When we reduce the quality of education that anyone receives, we reduce the expectations we have of them. If we want young people to be the best they can be (at anything) we must set the bar high and tell them we expect them to jump over it.

“My strong belief is that we need to be teaching all students – girls and boys – to have high expectations of themselves.”

The director of the UNSW-based Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology, Professor Simmons heads a team that is working to develop a prototype quantum computer in silicon. She is one of a handful of researchers in Australia to have twice received a Federation Fellowship and now a Laureate Fellowship, the Australian Research Council’s most prestigious award.

She said her team currently enjoyed a two- to three-year lead on other teams striving to build a quantum computer. But she said with billions of dollars of investment pouring into the field, “our next challenge is to see whether we benefit from our international lead and translate our research into high-technology industries here in Australia”.

Professor Simmons also had a broader message for all Australians on Australia Day.

“In Australia, when praising ourselves … we tend to emphasise the beauty of our natural environment, our great lifestyle, and the easy-going nature of our people. The lucky country.

“I think this is a mistake, because it doesn't acknowledge the hard work that people have done to be successful and it encourages us to shy away from difficult challenges. In short, I believe it will eventually stop us from being as ambitious as we might be,” Professor Simmons said.

“As we take things to the next phase of trying to build a prototype quantum computer, I feel proud to be a part of the team that is going to make this happen. I am grateful for that Australian spirit to give things ago, and our enduring sense of possibility. In this, we have so much to be thankful for – and, more importantly, so much to look forward to.

“But there is room for improvement as well. In our innovation policies, in our education system, and in the ambitions of our scientists and discoverers, I want Australians above all to be known as people who do the hard things.”

Read the full transcript of Professor Simmons’ Australia Day Address.