Vale Emeritus Professor Peter Fensham

Vale Emeritus Professor Peter Fensham
26 October 1927 – 23 August 2021


Image courtesy of photographer Tony Miller with permission from the Monash University Archives.

Emeritus Professor Peter Fensham, who has died aged 93, was one of Australia’s foremost science educators and Australia’s first Professor of Science Education.

Peter’s academic background in both chemistry and the social sciences gave him insight into two very different worlds. It imbued him with the belief that science was not only a subject, but a tool for social change. His contributions over a long and distinguished career led to the integration of social justice into science education’s operational equation. His best-known seminal paper, Science for All (1985) was a plea for access to science for all students as opposed to a small minority of future scientists, in the hope that they would use it as a force for good in the wider world.

Peter came to Monash in 1967. His appointment as the Ian Clunies Ross Chair of Education and Foundation Professor of Science Education was considered a daring move by the University, as he had neither the school-teaching experience nor the post-graduate qualifications in education that were customary at that time in departments and faculties of education. This lack of a formal background in education raised considerable suspicion among some of the existing staff. But it was gamble that paid off; ten of the first 20 PhDs to be completed at Monash were in science education.

During his tenure, Peter and his colleagues brought outstanding international educators to Monash, positioning the University as a leader in educational research, particularly in science education, whilst creating international research opportunities for existing staff. His publications were testament to his inexhaustible energy and included more than 20 books and 150 research papers on topics ranging from chemistry to science education’s social impact. According to the American science educator James Wandersee, while other researchers frantically chopped away at science education’s multiple problems, Peter took time to reflect before proceeding to sharpen his investigative axe “and thus made every swing count.’’

Peter was a self-effacing, modest individual, with exceptional warmth. Like so many high achievers, his curiosity and drive had its roots in childhood. Throughout his career he was preoccupied by the question; why was he the only one out of the fifty students in his primary school who decided to study and practice chemistry? Why could his contemporaries not see the vast possibilities that science offered? Peter realized the current structure of science education needed a drastic shake-up. Young minds ached for real-world challenges; they needed to be able to apply their knowledge in order to understand the discipline’s relevance. His Christian faith and Methodist upbringing also greatly influenced his beliefs, namely that science should be used as a tool for social justice and that education was about enabling everyone to reach their fullest potential as moral, intelligent beings who can contribute to the well-being of society.

Peter James Fensham was born in Melbourne in October 1927. He completed a Bachelor of Science (1948) and an M.Sc. in Chemistry at the University of Melbourne (1950); a PhD on heterogeneous catalysis at Bristol University in the UK (1952); and a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Chemistry at Princeton University (1953).

In Princeton, Fensham met Professor Hadley Cantril, who, along with another notable psychologist, Sir Frederic Bartlett, sparked his curiosity for social psychology. In 1953 he returned to England courtesy of a Nuffield scholarship to study for a PhD in social psychology and social anthropology at Cambridge University. Not without trepidation, he left the familiar world of atoms, molecules and ions to undertake an ethnographic study of a textile factory community experiencing rapid technological change.

The job he was offered after graduating with his second PhD (1956), however, was not in the field of social sciences, but in chemistry at the University of Melbourne. After a decade of research, Peter became a reader in physical chemistry. To maintain a focus on the social sciences, he conducted a study on chemistry learning at university level which was an under-researched area at the time. He also analysed the outcomes of a national scholarship scheme for senior secondary students and found it failed its alleged equity intention, leading to its cessation.

On moving to Monash, Peter seized the opportunity to start a new academic research field in Australia drawing on both of his academic backgrounds. On his appointment, the then Dean of Education said to him, “I don’t know anything about your field and I don’t think you know much about it, but find out what you need and you’ll have full rein to make it a successful academic field.”

A series of high-profile public lectures led to Peter’s book, Rights and Inequality in Australian Education (1970), which became a foundation for the 1972 reformist federal Whitlam government’s school education policies. He also organized the first conference of the Australasian Science Education Research Association (ASERA) in 1970 - a critical step in putting Australia at the forefront of international scholarship about science education.

In the 1970s Peter was heavily involved in the emergence of environmental education in Australia and became the first National President of the Australian Association for Environmental Education (1981) – a role he had earlier played in the Australian Science Teachers Association (1972-1974). In 1985 he recommended curriculum reforms to the State Government in the Blackburn Report which led to the creation of the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE). In the late 1980s, Peter, along with his distinguished colleagues, Richard White and  Dick Gunstone, enjoyed one final breakthrough for science education research when the Australian Research Council awarded the trio the first continuing research grant in education.

On an international level, Peter worked in many overseas countries, and developed a close relationship with UNESCO and the International Organization for Science and Technology Education (IOSTE). He was a member of the Science Expert Group of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) project (1998-2009) and helped to shape its emphasis on public scientific literacy.  His numerous prestigious posts included memberships of the Universities Council (1977-1981); the State Board of Education (1982-1986); and appointment as Dean of Monash’s Faculty of Education (1982-1988).

Not surprisingly, Peter was awarded many honours and distinctions. He was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy for Social Sciences (1985); appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) (1986); granted the Distinguished Service Award from the International Council of Associations for Science Education (1988); and was awarded the National Association for Research in Science Education’s Distinguished Contribution Award (1999). In 2010, the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) introduced the Fensham Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Chemical Education in his honour. In 2015 the Education Faculty at Monash established a PhD scholarship in his name, in recognition of his outstanding contribution.

Upon retirement from Monash, Peter was appointed Emeritus Professor in 1993. His active career, however, was far from over. He served as Adjunct Professor at Queensland University of Technology and was appointed Patron of the Science Teachers Association of Victoria (1998-2002), and Science Education Ambassador for Queensland (2003-2010).

Science education was only one component of Peter’s kaleidoscopic life. Outside the University,  he was also involved in the Pugwash Movement for Nuclear Disarmament, and appointed National Chair of the Australian Student Christian Movement (1972-1976). As a Christian he was active in social justice issues, including opposing government state aid to non-government schools. He was also an avid walker who loved hiking in the Tasmanian wilderness and played croquet regularly well into old age.

As well as his passion for science, Peter had the knack of bringing people together and translating ideas into action and service. He was, as his colleagues noted, a fountain of ideas, generous with support and always enthusiastic. He challenged science teachers and students alike to  open their eyes to the potential impact of their work that stretched far beyond the classroom and into the wider world. His legacy lives on in the students he inspired to gather wisdom as well as knowledge.