How to reverse the declining trends in STEM participation

Oct 14
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According to the Office of the Chief Scientist – STEM in the National Interest: A Strategic Approach Position Paper – “To reverse the trend for decreasing STEM participation in schools, federal and state governments will need to cooperate to drive the school education system away from educating students as we used to, and towards preparing students for a future increasingly bound to STEM.”

Just yesterday the Government announced a promise of $12 million for STEM Schools . $7.4 million for mathematics resources, $3.5 million for computer programming, and $500,000 will be set aside for a pilot program “to help develop the next generation of innovators and job-ready graduates”.  

To me it seems it’s not just WHAT kind of STEM is taught but HOW it’s being taught. Students need understanding about what STEM jobs are, who they can look up to, how a STEM job can benefit society and how a STEM can apply to real world challenges and problem solving.  

As a Marketing Director I’m no expert in this space so I asked some of the speakers for one of our previous STEM Education conferences for their opinions on STEM, engaging and attracting students to STEM and how to reverse the declining trends in STEM participation. What is it that those in the industry feel are the key factors driving this issue?

Drumroll please… Meeting our prestigious participants:

  • David Lowe, Associate Dean, Faculty of Engineering and IT at the University of Sydney
  • Professor Leon Sterling, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Digital Frontiers), Swinburne University of Technology
  • Professor John Yearwood Executive Dean, Faculty of Science and Technology Federation University
  • Tony Peake, Managing Partner – Finance & Operations | National Leader –
    Government, PwC       Twitter LinkedIn
  • Dr Sharon Wincour, Executive Director, Business/Higher Education Round Table
  • Anita Trenwith, Program Officer: UniSA Connect, UniSA College, University of South Australia 
  • Professor Iwona Miliszewska, Australian Council, Deans of ICT
  • Dr Mary Coupland, Director, Mathematics Study Centre, School of Mathematics, UTS

Q: In the world of STEM Education do you think all 4 STEM disciplines should be awarded equal focus?

David Lowe – No, definitely not – though nor do I think this is needed. The disciplines are not independent of each other. For example, maths and science are key enablers of – an indeed components of – engineering. Technology and engineering both have significant overlaps as well.

Prof Sterling – All 4 STEM areas should be awarded equal focus, but I don’t think they are currently.

Prof Yearwood – It depends on what. The STEM disciplines all deserve equal focus from a career perspective but from a learning perspective there are differences and deserve different levels of focus at different stages.

Tony Peake – A fascinating question to contemplate; in early childhood education and in school settings I believe they should be equal in focus; in later high school as students decide their interests or strengths they may decide to stream towards one or more of the STEM disciplines, and by the time you get to vocational and higher education most students will begin to focus more narrowly; there is, however, merit in trying to ensure that a broad set of knowledge and skills is attained prior to specialisation

Dr Sharon Wincour – Yes because technology has softened boundaries among the disciplines in all areas of study. STEM applies to the hard sciences and now occupies space in the humanities. Some even refer to STEAM ie. including the arts

Anita Trenwith – It’s not as simple as just having equal focus on the four areas of STEM but I believe the biggest impact can be made when combining all 4 disciplines into one project with a cross disciplinary approach and real world relevance for students.  

Prof Iwona Miliszewska – When most individuals use the term STEM, they mean whatever discipline they meant in the past. So, STEM is usually interpreted to mean science or mathematics. Seldom does it refer to technology or engineering and, particularly, little consideration is given to ICT as the “T” in STEM. This is an issue that must be remedied if STEM education is to have a positive influence on Australian education.

Dr Mary Coupland – Rather than setting up S and T and E and M in some kind of competition I would say that all need to be full resourced

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge in engaging and attracting students into STEM courses at a tertiary levels?

David Lowe – I see two key challenges (1) Effective connection within STEM curricula of the concepts and their applications; and (2) a clear understanding of the career opportunities that exist within the STEM field.

Prof Sterling – Convincing students that jobs are interesting and rewarding.

Prof Yearwood – Linking to reliable careers and confidence.

Tony Peake –    Unfortunately many potential tertiary students have been “lost” to STEM before they even get to tertiary level; we have seen an increasing   incidence of students opting out of subjects perceived as “hard” (such as advanced mathematics, physics and chemistry) in order to maximise their ATAR score; and universities have been somewhat complicit as they have removed a number of pre-requisite subjects in fields including engineering in response to this trend

Dr Sharon Wincour – Teachers appreciating the value of STEM and transmitting that message across to students throughout the school experience in a way that enthuses and excites them.

Anita Trenwith – I think one of the biggest challenges is to engage students in STEM subjects as early as possible, primary schools sometimes lack the expertise and the facilities to maximised interest in those crucial early years. The development of Primary Connections has helped primary school teachers without a formal science background deliver science but I think appointing specialist science teachers to help deliver engaging and innovative curriculum would be further beneficial in the long run.

Prof Iwona Miliszewska – One of the most significant challenges centres on introducing STEM-related issues such as energy efficiency, climate change, or hazard mitigation and developing the competencies to address the issues that students will confront as citizens. Addressing this challenge requires an educational approach that first places life situations and global issues in a central position and uses the four disciplines of STEM to understand and address the problems.

Dr Mary Coupland – The loss of pre-requisite Year 12 subjects but more importantly the rush to get a high ATAR at the possible expense of preparation for one’s uni courses

Q: In your opinion what is the answer to stopping/reversing the declining trends in STEM participation?

David Lowe -A curriculum that focuses on understanding the ways in which STEM can contribute to solving key societal problems.

Prof Sterling – Creating the impression that STEM jobs are the cool ones which are essential for productivity and innovation and need great social interaction.

Prof Yearwood – Linking to understandable industry desirable skills. Industry needing education as well, particularly in Australia.

Tony Peake – we need to look all the way back down the student lifecycle, and better equip teachers to make STEM more accessible, enjoyable and higher quality all the way from early childhood education, through primary and secondary school we need to identify and celebrate STEM “heroes” who represent relevant, inspiring role models to school students

Dr Sharon Winocur – More STEM education for teachers, Better information for teachers, parents and students about 21st century careers and the skills required (which include STEM) and STEM education should be part of the national conversation.

Anita Trenwith – Quality teachers make all the difference, and it is not just about their qualifications. The best teachers have the ability to get the information across in a way the students can relate to and understand. This skill is often learnt on the job and good mentoring can help fast track the skills to deliver the content at a suitable level and in an engaging way. Raising the public profile of teaching as a profession would possibly help attract the right people into this career pathway.

Prof Iwona Miliszewska – A comprehensive multi-pronged approach could be the answer. First, an enhancement of compulsory STEM education through a major revision to the national curriculum that resolves to increase the study hours and content of STEM classes in primary (starting in grade 1) and secondary schools. The goal of this initiative would be to improve the quality of basic STEM education nationwide, generating and stimulating interest in scientific topics and thus creating a broad support base for STEM in Australian society. Second, introduction of programs to nurture and train the best and brightest STEM talent by enhancing ‘elite’ education; such programs would lay the foundation for a STEM ‘elite track’ from secondary to tertiary levels of education. Third, facilitation of university-to-career transitions by supporting job placement of graduate students and post-doctoral researchers who complete degrees in STEM fields. Fourth, specifically addressing the underrepresentation of women in STEM education and careers by launching targeted initiatives supported through both public and corporate sector funding. 

Dr Mary Coupland – Make it clearer to students that they are unlikely to graduate in minimum time if they come to uni underprepared. Also, attract and retain teachers who are really interested in their subjects.

The next conference in this series, Improving STEM Education & Skills Outcomes will take place in Sydney this June..

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Submitted by John Burgher, Marketing Director, Criterion Conferences

John Burgher, Marketing Director, Criterion Conferences

John is a Marketing Director with over 12 years of B2B experience in the UK, Asia and Australia. He’s an ideas guy, foodie and a gadget geek who is always looking for the next ‘big thing’. If John had a super power he would love to plug into the matrix, and become superhuman. You connect with John on Linkedin

2 thoughts on “How to reverse the declining trends in STEM participation

  1. Some interesting perspectives from each and every one of the contributors to this blog and thank you for taking the initiative to ask them too! But I’d like to add something to the mix in terms of a way forward.
    Yes, you can equally prioritise or emphasise different elements of S.T.E.M. at different times to suit the context and demands.
    Yes, we can make STEM pathways more exciting by raising the profile or tackling emerging issues for the next century.
    Yes, we can update the new curriculum to give to schools, we can improve the quality of STEM educators coming through the system by making it a more appealing pathway, we can buy new and amazing resources for schools so they can play with the latest tech, we can even have a multi-pronged approach that does all this and more!
    But unless we develop the leadership capacity in schools to better understand the opportunities in STEM education, to appreciate the complex nuances of the interdisciplinary nature of the field and weave together the critical threads, then hotspots of innovation will continue to thrive but a systemic approach to re-image STEM education will not eventuate. Getting leaders to recognise that a quality STEM educational experience isn’t just about sharing our passion of the field with students rather it is about building the student’s relationship with STEM and developing their ability to learn and thrive in a 21C paradigm.

  2. All worthy comments, however the motivations for students when choosing their courses of study and subjects are often very much simpler.
    Reward for effort, at minimal expense and secure job prospects inform many who are ‘good at’ maths and Victoria that is physics chemistry biology and psychology. Psychology has been the fastest growing subject for twenty years! is not offered in NSW or Qld.
    Many prospective tertiary students now question the university degree course The Melbourne model has not assisted this significant change in perceived worth of a tertiary technical education.
    The costs of a degree as compared with short courses are seriously undermining enrolments in the sciences. Especially when destination employment is increasingly uncertain..

    Unemployment for STEM qualified workers is the highest in twenty years, the mining and construction downturn and the imminent closure of car manufacturing has combined to create a supply pool of many thousands of experienced qualified STEM workers who prevent graduates from accessing employment..the 2005 prediction of ‘5000 vacancies’ is actually the reverse of that!
    In Victoria between 199 and 2004 the science in schools initiative spent $84million on an extensive integrated program in primary and secondary schools..enrolments briefly improved for the 3years following the program then declined to trend.

    As long as this is a politically defined need the trend can be expected to the economy has switched to employing 457 visa workers instead of employing locals.

    We have 457visa science teachers in secondary schools when there are local candidates.

    The whole STEM enrolment/employment cycle is very complicated.
    Better if the scheme becomes an education strategy to transform the quality of teaching and learning to raise general literacy and capability regardless of potential employment destination

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