Up to the challenge
Science couldn't ask for a more fervent advocate than physicist Professor John O'Connor.
For the past 35 years he has committed himself to science outreach in an effort to reverse the four-decade decline in participation in the field, particularly in teaching.
"For my whole academic career I've been told that Australia produces more physicists than it needs, but that's not the case," says O'Connor, with just a hint of frustration.
"We've had to import skilled people from overseas. It's very worrying for our future given that science has an impact on all areas of our lives."
But O'Connor isn't one to sit back and complain. The Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences is a man of action, and his commitment to raising the profile of science has been acknowledged with two national honours.
In December 2009 he was presented with the Outstanding Service to Physics Award from the Australian Institute of Physics in recognition of his service to physics covering research, teaching, outreach and professional activities. Up to the challenge Science couldn't ask for a more fervent advocate than physicist Professor John O'Connor. He has also been elected as a Fellow of the prestigious Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering for his leadership in science and engineering outreach through innovative school programs, including the University's successful Science and Engineering Challenge, which he helped expand.
Last year, 20,000 students from more than 600 Australian schools took part and, in 2010, the Challenge welcomed its 100,000th student.
O'Connor realised early in his academic career that it was essential to inspire high school students and get them thinking about how science could open up exciting professional opportunities.
"The fundamental goal of the Challenge is to alter student perception about how a science or engineering career works," says O'Connor, whose own area of expertise is surface science, which entails studying the properties of the first few atomic layers of solids.
"They think that scientists are nerds who work on their own and do uninteresting things with data.
"Through the Challenge they learn that to be a scientist or engineer you need to have creativity, innovation, problem-solving skills and team work.
"When the students arrive for the Challenge they're not that enthusiastic but once they're in teams and focused on their activity, you need a cattle prod to get them to go to lunch," he laughs.
O'Connor has that enviable knack of being able to explain complex concepts for the non-scientific community. It's all part of his open-minded approach to promoting the value of science.
"People are interested in science and it's important to encourage this because young people won't be as enthusiastic if they don't feel they have the support of the community," he says.
And even though he has been teaching for more than three decades, O'Connor still gets a kick from seeing young people make new discoveries.
"I think it is that moment when something clicks for them and they realise something fresh - it's nice to be part of it."
Find out more about the Science and Engineering Challenge