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Contributor: ThinkFWD
A new leaf in STEM: The growing national imperative

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), an evolution of the old-school “three R’s” (reading, writing and arithmetic), are being widely touted as essential focus areas for the successful economies of the future.

In fact, the world’s most progressive economies already rest on these pillars, and countries who haven’t yet built a strong base in STEM risk being left behind in a rapidly evolving commercial landscape.

International research indicates that 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations require STEM skills and knowledge, and in Europe it’s predicted there will soon be a shortage of between 380,000 and 700,000 ICT workers.

The truth is that the jobs of the future haven’t even been invented yet, but in all likelihood they'll have a requirement for one or all of the STEM skills areas. 

In Australia, the need for a stronger emphasis on STEM subjects in the education system has already been identified, and a recent report by the government illustrates how the gap between industry requirements and the qualifications of school and university graduates is rapidly widening. According to the report, Australia is now the only country in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) not to have a current national strategy on science, technology and innovation. This is in contrast to other countries in the region with forward-thinking strategies such as Indonesia, India and Singapore, as well as many European nations which have had frameworks in place for years.

The shortfall in numbers

The report also identifies “worrying gaps in the STEM skills pipeline, from primary to tertiary education levels”. The revelation that currently up to 40 per cent of Year 7 to 10 mathematics classes are being taught without a qualified mathematics teacher, with 42 per cent of students failing to reach the national baseline proficiency level in mathematical literacy, also throws sharp light on the scale of that challenge.

Over the last twenty years, a steady decline in student participation in STEM subjects has been recorded in Australian schools, with only entry-level mathematics increasing. At tertiary level, Australia has a relatively high rate of per capita enrolments in higher education, but relatively few graduates in STEM subjects. There have been efforts to increase numeracy through vocational education training (VET), however this initiative has been criticised as papering over the cracks, suggesting the focus should shift to earlier in the educational journey.

STEM the tide

It was Thomas Edison who said that “… discontent is the first necessity of progress.” So while the situation may sound dire and the need for action is patently urgent, inspiration can be drawn from the words of that great scientist, engineer and innovator. A complete understanding of the educational needs and a coordinated approach between government, industry and primary and tertiary education is required to reverse the trend, and the movement is already gathering momentum.

What’s really required is to better engage young Australians in STEM subjects and to increase their consideration for pursuing STEM education at tertiary level, so they embark on their future careers equipped with the necessary skills to innovate and succeed.

For this to become a reality, a change in pedagogy at school level is required which, coupled with increased technological capability in schools, can bring inquiry and action-based learning to life and support the development of problem solving and higher order thinking skills. Ultimately, students must want to learn STEM subjects, or their commitment to discovery won’t last past primary education.

Lesson time and exposure to the practical application of STEM subjects should increase and teachers themselves need to be educated in how to effectively teach STEM subjects, so they can deliver inspirational course content that drives students to reach their full potential.

To help reach this objective, the government has recently committed an extra $12 million to help increase student uptake of STEM subjects in primary and secondary schools. That’s in addition to the $5 million dollars allocated in the 2014/15 budget for the Primary Connections and Science by Doing programs. Focus areas for this funding include providing innovative new mathematics curriculum resources, supporting the introduction of computer coding in schools, exploration of the United States’ “Pathways in Technology, Early, College, High School” (P-TECH) model, as well as summer schools for STEM subjects.

It’s a step in the right direction, but ultimately collaboration between business and the government will be required as identified in a report by the Australian Industry Group, which is working in concert with Australia’s Chief Scientist on a school-industry STEM partnership. Their research concludes that a national strategy is imperative to help develop STEM initiatives in schools, universities and vocational training, as well as a focus on raising qualifications of STEM subject educators and ensuring that funding is used effectively. 

The humanity factor

A workforce of agile thinkers and adaptable problem solvers will help Australia to remain competitive on the world stage, but only if they are able to link technological and industrial advances with the needs of an ever-changing market.

With a growing focus on STEM subjects, researchers assert that it’s important that arts and humanities are not ignored, since creativity is an essential part of innovation. In fact, a new variation on STEM includes an 'A' for art and design – STEAM – which recognizes that technological innovation is only valuable when it’s made relevant to people, and eventually it’s the marriage of human need and technological solutions that define the best innovations.

Changing course for progress

As education is institutionalised and curricula and testing standards are centrally controlled, it’s a Herculean task to quickly alter the direction of such a juggernaut. But modern commerce and industry, driven by competitive innovation, demand rapid change.

A national strategy supported by innovative pedagogy which results in the increased uptake of STEM subjects could be intrinsic to the future success of Australia in the global economy. With a concerted effort between government, educators and industry groups – plus the application of a little STEM-based imaginative problem solving – anything is possible.

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