Why do Australian students need a good STEM education?

Australian school students are falling behind in global STEM rankings, despite numerous initiatives to drive participation. Maybe we need to take a step back and look at why STEM education is important, and it’s not just about jobs. In the first of this series, The Warren Centre’s John Phillips considers what a good STEM education looks like and how it benefits us all.

High school participation rates in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects continue to fall, and Australian numeracy levels in the OECD’s PISA ratings table continue to languish. For all the efforts made to encourage girls to participate in STEM, the numbers remain stubbornly low.

There are a myriad of initiatives that government, industry, academia and NGOs are all rolling out, but it’s far from clear how successful and well-targeted they are. What analytics should we use to evaluate these programs and improve our STEM performance? Well, first we must define what a good STEM education is, and even more importantly, why we need one.

This question goes to the core of one of the major problems caused by the industrialisation of education: the delivery of a large amount of content at the expense of understanding its context and its relationship to the world around us. Parents are accustomed to asking their children, “What did you learn at school today?” We should be asking, “How many questions did you ask at school today?”

In the case of STEM education, the most commonly quoted answer to the ‘why’ question is that 75% of all future jobs will require knowledge of STEM skills. However, STEM is much more than just an acronym for its component parts, and STEM is not only about future jobs.

Outside of the education space, we don’t consider the form and function of the natural and physical worlds through the prism of each individual discipline. We appreciate the contribution of all disciplines, including the humanities.

In the same way, STEM should be an educational approach where fundamental principles are introduced alongside their application in the real world, whilst acknowledging and incorporating appropriately the contribution of the other disciplines. The curriculum should leave room for open-ended questions and allow teachers to guide independent research by students in answering those questions.

This teaching approach isn’t straightforward. It requires teachers to be comfortable with project-based learning and design thinking techniques and to consider lesson sequencing.  For example, have the students on this integrated project learnt the maths yet?  Principals must grapple with classroom timetabling, funding for project equipment, professional development, and room sizes.

State education departments will need very focussed work over an extended period before all schools are able to teach STEM in this way.

Why is STEM education more than just a pathway to a good job? One of the best answers is provided by the distinguished international educator, Professor Rodger Bybee, in his book The Case for STEM Education – Challenges and Opportunities. Bybee regards ‘STEM Literacy’ as the goal of STEM Education, and he defines it as an individual’s:

  • knowledge, attitudes, and skills to identify questions and problems in life situations, explain the natural and designed world, and draw evidence-based conclusions about STEM-related issues;
  • understanding of the characteristic features of STEM disciplines as forms of human knowledge, inquiry, and design;
  • awareness of how STEM disciplines shape our material, intellectual, and cultural environments; and
  • willingness to engage in STEM-related issues and with the ideas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as a constructive, concerned, and reflective citizen.

This integrated approach is important to all citizens as the world becomes increasingly driven by technology, not just to people specifically involved in what we currently view as ‘STEM jobs’. Having a background on these issues is just as important for an informed public as having a basic understanding of history or politics.

The Warren Centre has been championing the cause of STEM education for 30 years. Now that STEM has become an issue regularly covered by our mainstream press, we are asking experts in the field to help us answer these questions. This is the first in a series of expert responses to the STEM challenge. Find out more about The Warren Centre and STEM education.

Professor Rodger Bybee is visiting Australia in May 2017 to attend STEM events around the country. The Warren Centre has obtained his services for a number of events in the week beginning 15 May. He will also deliver the keynote speech at RDA Hunter’s Smart Workforce STEM Conference on 12 May. For information on the Warren Centre’s events, contact Fiona Hearne at fiona.hearne@sydney.edu.au, +61 (0) 2 9351 7205.

Header image: Shutterstock 

About John Phillips

John Phillips is The Warren Centre’s Manager, Education Projects, and Convenor of our STEM Education Taskforce. John is a systems engineer with extensive international telecommunications project and employee relations experience.