From cutting edge to classroom - why Australia needs a big STEM sell.
Feb 22, 2016 | Features | by Kate Jackson
Building with spaghetti and marshmallows - that sounds like fun.
Making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, using maths to untie shoelaces, playing with lie detectors - also fun.
In fact, the smorgasbord of challenges set for year nine students at Sydney University’s annual STEM Fair is pretty persuasive about the joys of learning subjects traditionally considered boring and hard.
Because there is a new consensus among our political and industrial leaders that if Australia is to thrive in the new world, technological literacy is the key.
The worrying thing is, this realisation goes hand-in-hand with the fact that fewer Australian children are opting to study STEM subjects - and fewer graduates are choosing to teach or make a career from them.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths.
Its importance was highlighted by Malcolm Turnbull in his first speech as PM when he said: “We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change, is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.”
That acknowledgement was followed with the unveiling of the Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda, allocating $2.3 billion over 10 years to fund tax breaks for start-up investors, stimulate business collaboration with universities, create a CSIRO innovation fund and encourage the participation of school students in STEM education.
Multi-million dollar research centres such as Deakin University’s CADET building and Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies are attracting enormous public and private-sector subsidies as Australia scrambles to retain and incentivise its best scientists.
And the redesigned Hurlstone Agricultural College - which will give 1500 teenage boarders free access to state-of-the-art greenhouses, labs and growth chambers - is one of a handful of specialist schools springing up in response to the country’s dearth of STEM expertise.
The growing concern about our technological literacy is well founded.
A 2013 government report titled Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in the National Interest: A Strategic Approach says the decline in the teaching and learning of STEM subjects is already damaging Australia’s productivity and competitiveness.
“Our relative decline of STEM skills is holding back our national economy and causing real frustration for employers,” it says.
“Young people in schools and universities are not acquiring the STEM skills we need for our future prosperity.”
Which is why innovators like the University of Sydney’s Amy Bywater are engaged in the big STEM sell.
Amy is project officer for the social inclusion unit’s schools outreach program and the woman behind the annual STEM Fair, through which some 330 students from 11 schools undertake a day of challenges.
She said: “We wanted to make sure we were part of a movement that was encouraging students to consider STEM subjects and careers as a viable option and something that our society can depend upon in the future.
“Response from the schools involved has been overwhelmingly positive - it’s an exciting day and we certainly have data supporting the fact that it stimulates interest in STEM.
“Teachers see the impact that it has on students and that in turn helps them when they come back into their classrooms to keep that enthusiasm going.
“The day gives students access to people working in STEM careers and role models that are following their dream of working as a scientist or being a mathematician or an engineer.”
Over the next 15 years, it’s estimated that more than 40 per cent of all current jobs will disappear - to be performed by automation and robotics - and three-quarters of the jobs replacing them will require some kind of STEM knowledge.
In light of this, Australia’s group of eight university alliance (Go8) has welcomed the creation of a Ministry for Industry, Innovation and Science, describing it as “extremely important for Australia.”
Spokeswoman Vicki Thomson argues that only through good public policy can universities expect to educate future leaders and deliver the quality of research capable of changing lives and building prosperity.
“The new Prime Minister’s statement of the value of innovation and science, and critically the collaboration between universities and business, is exactly the Go8’s focus,” she said.
But incoming Chief Scientist Alan Finkel argues that stimulating interest in STEM study should begin way back with an overhaul of teaching and learning in schools.
“The first thing is to have an approach to education where we’re setting it in a relevant context, instead of teaching it, in some places, in an old-fashioned fashion,” he said on the ABC’s Lateline program last year.
His argument is not new - former Chief Scientist Robin Batterham identified to this journalist almost 15 years ago the need for a more relevant and accessible approach to science in schools.
Yet despite a concerted national effort to stimulate the take up of science-based subjects in schools since the turn of this century, interest has continued to decline.
Robyn Aitkin of the Australian Science Teachers Association believes the continuing wane in interest is caused in part by an over-concentration on NAPLAN subjects in schools.
“Over the last few years our whole focus has been on literacy and numeracy - there’s a lot of money around them because of NAPLAN.
“Teachers prepare for NAPLAN testing and science is not in that. But science is a great medium for teaching evaluation and a great medium for teaching analysis.
“It’s not just something that should be taught in secondary schools - the students that have been taught science well in primary school come through into secondaryschool with really good evaluation skills and that helps in so many areas.”
Aitkin says she would like to see STEM at the heart of education policy-making and argues teacher development is the key to keeping students engaged and focussed on STEM careers.
“As teachers we never stop learning and I know teachers value the opportunity for professional learning,” she said.
“My experience is that excellent teachers make a difference to how many kids go on to study science - teachers have a big influence on students and what they like.”
Amy Bywater agrees.
“There’s a place for universities to support schools in terms of facilities and resources, access to academics and a pool of knowledge so that we work in partnership to enrich what they offer.
“Certainly we understand that a big part of the process is actually supporting teachers in their professional development.”
Correna Haythorpe of the Australian Education Union describes the recently-announced measures to boost STEM learning in schools as “piecemeal, one-off programs which will do nothing to deal with long-term shortages of maths and science teachers”.
The $1 billion plan includes IT summer schools, coding competitions, online computing challenges and online support for teachers preparing technology-based curriculum activities.
What it doesn’t address is a chronic nationwide shortage of teachers qualified to teach STEM subjects or with a science background.
“At the moment around 40 per cent of our Years 7 to 10 mathematics classes are taught without a qualified mathematics teacher,” said Ms Haythorpe.
“One third of secondary students are in schools where the principals said a lack of qualified maths teachers hindered learning, and 25 per cent are in schools where the principal said a lack of qualified science teachers hindered learning.”
So if Australia is to grow interest in technology, the big STEM sell may need to begin a long way back from the multi-million dollar cutting-edge labs of our universities and research institutes.
It might just require a persuasive recruitment pitch, juicy incentives and expert training for the salespeople themselves - the ones standing at the front of our classrooms.