Is STEM the key?

Note: With a flood of papers, speeches and articles relevant to the topic, this post is now Part One of a Three Part series on STEM. Part Two will be published Sunday 17th May and Part Three Sunday 24th May.

In June 2014, the Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon. Tony Abbott MP acknowledged the significant role that STEM is to play in the nations future. 'There will be significant emphasis in boosting our focus on science, technology, engineering and maths because science is at the heart of a country’s competitiveness and it is important that we do not neglect science as we look at the general educational and training schemes.’ The question now is how will education respond and why is STEM so important to our futures.

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Prof. Ian Chubb, has thrown his voice behind action to enhance STEM education both in public speeches and through the release of a substantial report titled ’Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future’. According to Prof. Chubb 'Science is infrastructure and it is critical to our future. We must align our scientific effort to the national interest; focus on areas of particular importance or need; and do it on a scale that will make a difference to Australia and a changing world, We are the only OECD country without a science or technology strategy. Other countries have realised that such an approach is essential to remaining competitive in a world reliant on science and science-trained people,'

The role that STEM plays in future economic growth is well supported. Roughly half of America’s economic growth is attributed to STEM related advances. In Australia a similar picture is painted in that 65% of our growth per capita can be linked to improvements in our use of capital, labour and technological innovation made possible by STEM. (OCS 2014) Similarly a report by USA’s National Science Board (US NSB) found that:

'The “STEM workforce” is extensive and critical to innovation and competitiveness.'
'STEM knowledge and skills enable multiple, dynamic pathways to STEM and non-STEM occupations alike.'
'Assessing, enabling, and strengthening workforce pathways is essential to the mutually reinforcing goals of individual and national prosperity and competitiveness.'

Forbes reports that the US Department of Commerce found 'STEM creates a nation of innovation and global competitiveness because it drives the generation of ideas and propels the creation of new industries. Moreover, growth in STEM jobs is three times faster than in other jobs; STEM occupations are projected to grow by more than 17 percent.

According to Prof. Chubb, ‘STEM skills are critical to the management and success of R&D projects as well as the day-to-day operations of competitive firms' and 'There is the lesson for us: top-performing STEM economies are united not by their size or geography but by their capacity to organise then grasp their opportunities.’ If Australia is to maximise its position in the emerging technology and innovation driven economy we must create a climate that supports STEM at all levels. We need to create partnerships between industry, research and education that empower innovation. Globally this cultural climate is taking shape supported by clear directives from government as seen in directives from US President Barack Obama (training of 100,000 excellent STEM teachers over the next decade) and in the UK from the 'Technology Strategy Board’.

Among the four focus areas of 'STEM: Australia’s Future’ is an emphasis on ‘supporting high quality education’. Seen as a means to an end 'Australian education- formal and informal - will prepare a skilled and dynamic STEM workforce and lay the foundations for lifelong STEM literacy in the community.’ The US NSB agree ‘A well-rounded pre-college education that includes significant engagement with STEM unlocks pathways into the technical STEM workforce and pursuit of additional STEM studies at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels.’ In the US ’16.5 million college-educated individuals, including many working in sales, marketing and management, reported that their job required at least a bachelor’s degree level of Science & Engineering training. Many of these people are not employed in fields typically identified as STEM disciplines but they recognise a need for this style of knowledge and thinking in their daily operations.

What the evidence shows is that STEM is both a discrete set of disciplines and career pathways along with a set of broadly relevant capabilities which are increasingly required for career success. STEM encompasses knowledge in areas such as mathematics, chemistry, physics, engineering, skills such as complex reasoning, problem solving, design and programming and broad abilities such as inductive and deductive reasoning, mathematical reasoning and non-cognitive dispositions such as preferences for investigative approaches and independence. (Anthony Carnevale) The US NSB report identifies that 'In addition to having a well-rounded education that includes both STEM and non-STEM subjects, employers indicate that today’s STEM workers must possess a variety of characteristics important for the workplace. These include the ability to work independently and in teams, a willingness to persist in solving hard problems, and an understanding of workplace expectations.’

To meet the needs for a STEM capable workforce Prof. Chubb identifies a need to increase recognition of STEM education, lift the number of STEM teachers, develop ‘Science Literacy’ in schools, build a workforce with industry aligned skills and increase the uptake of STEM across the workforce. For schools the standout points of the 'STEM: Australia’s Future’ report is its call for ‘Inspirational Teaching and ‘Inspired Learning’. To achieve the first of these two goals ‘Inspirational Teaching’ Australia must 'Provide all pre-service and in-service STEM teachers with training and professional development opportunities to deliver contemporary science using contemporary pedagogy, with a focus on creativity and inquiry-based learning- more like science is practised.’ This goal will be in part achieved by increasing incentives to follow a STEM education pathway and that training for pre-service teachers reflects the demand for STEM teachers. The second goal of Inspired Learning’ requires we 'Use curricula and assessment criteria, from primary to tertiary levels, to promote the development of long-lasting skills- including quantitative skills, critical thinking, creativity, and behavioural and social skills- in parallel with disciplinary knowledge.’

The goal of ‘Inspired Learning’ within STEM is worth particular consideration. According to 'STEM: Australia’s Future’ we will 'Develop science literacy in schools by helping schools to teach STEM as it is practised, in ways that engage students, encourage curiosity and reflection, and link classroom topics to the ‘real-world.’ Such a goal is in common with much of the pedagogy described on this site and across those that emphasise an inquiry approach to learning that is driven by student ownership of the problem solving process from the point of imagining questions to be explored through to the testing of solutions. It is this approach to STEM education that will enable our students to experience a process of innovation, which they may call on when they enter a workforce where a ‘start-up’ mentality will be increasingly common.

Robot container loaders at Port Brisbane set productivity record for a straddle terminal

Robot container loaders at Port Brisbane set productivity record for a straddle terminal

Speaking at an Australian Association of Independent Schools STEM conference Dr. Fabio Ramos of Sydney University illustrated the importance of a 'start-up' mentality. In areas such as mining, healthcare and agriculture innovative technologies and processes have brought new products to market out of the research and development of students. These students have been able to utilise their STEM capabilities to rapidly develop new fields and then capitalise on the economic potential of their ideas. Having experiences with this approach to innovative, design thinking from an early age is critical in building a STEM capable workforce. It is in this way that a STEM approach to ‘Inspired Learning’ distinguishes itself from traditional teaching and learning in Science. In STEM the blending of science, technology, engineering and mathematics allows a greater emphasis on real-world applicability of skills. In this model the focus is on the thinking dispositions, an iterative design process with a research foundation that leads to new ways of working and living.

According to ‘Natural Start Alliance’ (a coalition of educators, parents, organisations and others who want to help young children connect with nature) student engagement in STEM learning in a unified, integrated manner is critical as it helps students integrate knowledge across disciplines. Starting this process early is essential according to 'Natural Start’ as 'The secret is to tap into their natural and innate curiosity about the living world. By simply allowing them to investigate, by encouraging them to ask questions about the real world, you are engaging children in STEM.’ and 'The traditional approach of teaching topics in isolation does not support the ways that children learn best.’ 

Undoubtedly then STEM has a place in the educational futures of our students, but will their teachers be ready for this challenge. Australia has an ageing teacher population and education is a field of endeavour with a long tradition of changing slowly. Without adequate training, high levels of support, incentives for teachers to train and re-train into STEM success will be hampered. Unless we build connections with industry and research institutions we risk missing opportunities to maximise learning. Without government incentives and support for the funding of the development of ‘Inspirational Teaching’ STEM learning in Australia is likely to slip further behind and with the speed at which developing nations are moving into this space we could find ourselves trailing a new world order. 

by Nigel Coutts

Read Part Two