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Olympics lessons for science and maths.

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The Hon Julie Bishop MP Deputy Leader of the Opposition Shadow Minister for Employment, Business and Workplace Relations

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With the Beijing Olympics now over, the medal tally analysis begins in earnest.

Host nation China's rise to the top of the list was no surprise with the powerhouse USA relegated to second place.

But it will be Britain's performance, coming from 36th to 4th, that will be the subject of much debate - giving the world an idea of what is in store when London hosts the 2012 Games.

Australia performed exceedingly well - given our size, past Olympic performances and our long-term average medal tally.

The Australian Institute of Sport has been highly effective because it has helped to strengthen the paths of development for promising junior athletes, who are often identified at a relatively young age and provided with high-quality specialist coaching and guidance.

China has taken these strategies much further, and while there would be disquiet in Australia about the intensive training of very young children, there can be no dispute about the sporting success China has been able to achieve.

The key is to identify aptitude and talent as early as possible and provide a supportive environment to allow children to reach their full potential.

Only a small number ever win medals at the Olympics, however many more learn the lessons of reward for effort and the benefits of personal discipline and commitment.

The same approach should be taken to academic pursuits, particularly in the science and mathematics fields.

If our science and research performance could be measured in sporting terms, Australia has a number of gold medals to its name with our Nobel Prize winners and numerous silver and bronze medals in many fields of scientific endeavour.

However, Australia is facing a significant shortfall of scientists and engineers generally, let alone world record breakers.

The astronaut Andy Thomas, arguably Australia's most famous living scientist, has said that if Australia is to continue to produce sufficient scientists and researchers to underpin our national prosperity, the starting point is to spark the imagination of children with the wonder of science very early in primary school.

He argues that if children are not interested in science by the time they leave primary school they are unlikely to study it in the later years of high school and even less likely to go on to science studies at university.

The most important resource is to ensure there are specialist maths and science teachers at primary school. However, it is rarely the case in Australian schools at present.

There have been several worthwhile programmes over many years which aimed to promote science and mathematics in schools, but there has not been a consistent measured national approach.

Where possible, every primary school in Australia should have access to at least one teacher with the ability to engage and inspire our budding scientists, engineers, mathematicians and researchers.

If we are to remain globally competitive in the 'science, maths and technology Olympics', which underpin our national prosperity we must take the lessons learned on the sporting field and apply them to the classroom.