That dull maths homework you never wanted to do, the boring science classes you spent staring out of the window, daydreaming… If science and maths in schools had peaked your interest, where would Australia be today? And if we can inspire the next generation in these areas – through robotics workshops, cool experiments, or coding marathons – where will Australia be in the future?
As a nation, we operate in a globally competitive job market moving rapidly towards a digital economy. The Australian Industry (Ai) Group is the latest in a growing number of industry-linked organisations warning that without an increased focus on the skills that can equip our future workforce, Australia risks falling behind other OECD countries in crucial indicators such as R&D intensity.
According to the Office of the Chief Scientist, 65% of our economic growth per capita from 1964 to 2005 can be ascribed to “improvements in our use of capital, labour and technological innovation – made possible in large part by STEM”.
In the 2014 report Science, Technology, Engineering And Mathematics: Australia’s Future, they state: “STEM skills are critical to the management and success of R&D projects as well as the day-to-day operations of competitive firms. They are the lifeblood of emerging knowledge-based industries – such as biotechnology, information and communications technology (ICT) and advanced manufacturing – and provide competitive advantage to established industries – such as agriculture, resources and healthcare.”
In the past few decades, there has been a continued, marked drop in enrolments in STEM subjects universities, along with lower participation rates in schools. In June 2013, the Office of the Chief Scientist reported that participation in mathematics and engineering at the tertiary level in Australia sat at about 50% of the OECD average, while “decreasing numbers of domestic students were commencing PhDs compared to rapid growth in STEM doctorates in other countries”.
The Australian Industry (Ai) Group’s March 2015 report, Progressing STEM skills in Australia, highlights the decline and – as other industry groups have done – calls for national action to grow our STEM-skilled workforce. Ai Group’s chief executive, Innes Willox, says: “We need co-ordinated efforts to increase education participation in concert with industry.”
Acting with the Office of the Chief Scientist, the Ai Group plans to develop a school-industry partnership program that addresses the shortage of STEM-qualified teachers and focuses on “developing an engaging curriculum”. The program, Strengthening School – Industry STEM Skills Partnerships, will kickstart this year and run into next year. The Ai Group aims include (see p.17 bit.ly/1GgdvQA) “mapping and documentation of existing school – industry partnerships in this area with a view to developing transferable model(s) of this practice.”
So, can industry come forward where action by the government has been slow and spearhead greater interest in and involvement in STEM at schools? And should they do this or do we risk diluting the curriculum with industry-focused priorities?
PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia (PwC Australia) is another industry player putting their focus into STEM in schools. “The importance of promoting STEM education in Australia can’t be underestimated. The transition of the digital economy demands a larger focus on innovation and technological prowess – incorporating these types of skills, including coding, analytics and the language of digital business,” says PwC Australia’s Kate Bennett Eriksson.
Google, who sponsors Refraction’s Careers with Code magazine, already has several programs aimed at increasing participation in computer science in primary and secondary schools. This includes their involvement in the Hour of Code, a global movement reaching tens of millions of students in 180+ countries, and CS First, a free program that increases student access and exposure to computer science education through after school, in school, and summer programs run by teachers and volunteers.
At this point, I’ll admit to having a vested interest in this area beyond working as part of a media organisation focussed on inspiring a smarter future. My daughter is in high school, and despite my strong efforts is far from engaged in maths and science. She carts a heavy maths textbook back and forth to school, which is filled with repetitive, boring activities. Nothing her teacher communicates to her indicates that maths is essential to inventing and operating lasers, cracking codes, creating new computers, plotting and predicting the path of natural hazards, or monitoring populations of endangered animals.
We must get better at engaging our students in STEM. And if Google, or PwC Australia, or the Ai Group can put in the funds and time into developing curriculum-linked content that gives students a clear indication of why finding the volume of a sphere or solving a quadratic equation could one day save your life or lead to a new type of aircraft, for example, then I think getting industry to focus on STEM in schools is something we should all support.
Heather Catchpole is Refraction Media’s creative director and long-time science journalist.