Is STEM the key? (Part Two)

The call for improved STEM programmes has gained momentum in the past two weeks with an address to the National Press Club by Catherine Livingstone AO of the Business Council of Australia and an occasional paper released by the Office of the Chief Scientist. The message is increasingly unavoidable, Australia must develop its STEM capabilities or be left behind by a global market driven by innovative technology and science. The role of education is understood to be essential in this process but what is to be done to meet the demand remains less clear.

With the Federal Budget came support from both sides of parliament for enhanced STEM programmes with the Government restating its commitment and the opposition offering an alternative plan. Prof. Ian Chubb supports the moves by each party and in his response to the budget announcements called for a bipartisan approach to Science 'Properly supported science must last longer than any parliament and any changes of government. I hope that a bipartisan spirit will be extended to science; after all, it sustains us all.'

The latest round of articles, speeches and papers calling for a new approach to STEM began with the release of the an Occasional Paper by the Office of the Chief Scientists (OCS) published on 29th April. Titled 'Stem skills in the workforce: What do employers want?’ written by Dr. Roslyn Prinsley & Dr. Krisztian Baranyai the paper reports on a survey of employer attitudes to STEM skills and STEM skilled workers. The results agree with previous reports that businesses are seeking and value employees with STEM skills. Eighty-two percent of employers responded that STEM qualifications are valuable even in fields where such qualifications are not a requisite, seventy one percent indicated STEM employees were amongst their most innovative and over fifty percent report an increasing need for STEM qualified staff (either professionals or technicians and trades). Looked at from a ‘skills to needs’ match forty percent reported difficulties finding the right technician or trades workers and thirty one percent had difficulty recruiting STEM graduates while around one in three reported a mismatch between the skills required and those of applicants.

At a finer level the survey reveals the types of skills wanted and valued by employers. Topping the list is a call for more ‘Active Learning’ where learning occurs on the job, this was considered very important by more than 60% of respondents and at least important by over 90%. The top five skills and attributes desired for the workforce where critical thinking, complex problem-solving, creative problem-solving and interpersonal skills. More than fifty percent of respondents ranked occupation-specific STEM skills, lifelong learning and design thinking as at least important while programming was considered at least important by less than 50%. The paper concludes 'This report highlights a mismatch between the skills required by employers and those of job applicants. Clearly, an effort has to be made to minimise this discrepancy. The information presented here should help to identify what needs to be done.' (Prinsley & Baranyai 2015 p4)

Also on 29th April, President of the Business Council of Australia, Catherine Livingstone AO addressed the National Press Club and presented her views on the importance of STEM. Catherine describes an ‘extraordinary disruption that is now upon us’ as a result of mass connectivity, an internet of things and from this rapid innovation fuelled by hyper connectivity. It is the degree of connectivity available to us that will allow for a tie of increased innovation 'Because innovation happens most powerfully at the interface. The more interfaces, the greater the potential for innovation; and the more connectivity the more interfaces.’ Livingstone states 'given the disruption of a hyper-connected world, many of our policy settings are simply not fit for purpose.'

In a similar fashion to the OCS paper, Livingstone identifies a need for a shift in the skills young people leave school with citing the current 400,000 young people out of work and not in full time study as evidence that 'This would suggest that it's not a participation problem, but a jobs and skills match problem we have on our hands.’ Focussing on the educational recommendations of the address Livingstone suggests 'We must move away from the notion that work is something we begin after a long period of study, to one where work is integrated with learning.’ Livingstone adds her voice to an increase in the development of STEM skills including computer coding, computational thinking, problem solving and design thinking. According to Livingstone 'Given that an estimated 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations, including those in the creative industries and humanities, will require STEM related skills and knowledge, the imperative for introducing these foundational skills into the primary and pre-primary curricula should be unassailable.’ Livingstone calls for a ten-year plan to close the gap between Australia’s digital literacy and that of our competitor nations. She concludes her discussion of educational changes by saying 'In order to achieve these philosophical shifts, we need to move our national preoccupation with class sizes needs to be replaced with a national obsession with teacher quality, teaching standards, learning methods and curriculum.

Responding to a question by Gareth Hutchens of The Sydney Morning Herald based on teacher quality and wage based strategies for attracting teachers to the profession, Livingstone identified the lack of sufficient numbers of suitably qualified teachers within the STEM disciplines as the key issue. Her solution is to identify and promote technologies that will maximise the impact and collaborative potential of those with the required skills. This would extend the reach of those most skilled in the delivery of STEM learning beyond their classroom or school such that a far larger number of students benefit. This solution has merit but would require a shift in the way school systems operate and an increased openness towards sharing the expertise of highly valued teachers. The profession is generally open to this sort of collaboration but competition between schools may act as a barrier to this occurring on increasingly formalised levels and ongoing emphasis on ‘high-stakes’ testing can only enhance this scenario. Looking beyond Australian schools one sees models such as Korean ‘Hagwons’ where the most valued teachers use technology to reach a mass market and earn considerable salaries in doing so. An alternative model may be a teacher driven market sector that supplies high-quality learning environments, programmes and expertise as a consultancy model similar to that provided by ‘NoTosh’ and ‘IDEO’ where industry knowledge and quality teaching practice merge. It is a shame perhaps that the excellent ‘Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools’ programme of the CSIRO does not gain greater support from industry and government as it has the potential to connect teachers with the level of expertise they require while building opportunities for the sort of situated learning industry is calling for.

A discussion thread on an Association of Independent Schools IT Integrators group touched on the possibility of mass collaboration as a method of circumventing the text book industry and developing a set of resources with genuine value to teachers and students. Such a collaboration is easily possible with the resources available to teachers today. Both YouTube and TED Ed provide tools for sharing lessons in a video format with added features to enhance learning such as questions, discussions, links to information and student tracking. Building on their motto of ‘Ideas worth sharing’ TED Ed embraces the motto ‘lessons worth sharing’. The site provides an open space for teachers to share lessons built on videos from YouTube or TED. The site allows teachers to create, share, explore and build on lessons at a global scale and in doing so create a rich resource for educators to draw upon. Apple is building a similar resource in the form of its iTunes U service that allows educators to create and share entire courses for access on Computer or iPad/iPhone. iTunes U enables teachers and students to share interactive text books they create with iBooks Author in addition to Video or Audio files and as with other services allows uploading of files in PDF along with the proprietary formats used by Apple’ productivity applications (Pages, Numbers, Keynote). What services like this offer that in-house Learning Management Systems do not provide is access to a global community of educators both as a source and destination for collaboratively constructed resources.

In Part Three I will look at the perspective on Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) report ‘A Smart Move: Future-proofing Australia’s workforce by growing skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and those who call for a cautious approach to a STEM focused education such as Fareed Zakaria of the Washington Post.

By Nigel Coutts

 Read Part One