Why Australia needs to invest in STEM education – now
Now that the STEM revolution is underway in Australian universities, the focus turns to teaching the subjects in primary schools and encouraging women to pursue STEM careers.
As Australian politics becomes increasingly polarised, finding bipartisan agreement on any major policy issue appears almost impossible.
Yet in the lead-up to the May 2019 federal election, both major parties were united in their public support of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.
Successive governments, both Coalition and Labor, have repeated the commitment by prime minister Bob Hawke in 1990 to transform Australia from the Lucky Country into “the clever country”.
Australia, like most developed countries around the world, recognises that public investment in STEM is not only critical for future economic prosperity but will also help to create a healthier, more creative and adaptable society.
“STEM is everywhere,” says Australia’s former chief scientist, Professor Ian Chubb. “Our nourishment, our safety, our homes and neighbours, our relationships with family and friends, our health, our jobs, our leisure … are all profoundly shaped by technological innovation and the discoveries of science.”
According to Dr Linda Pfeiffer, a lecturer in the School of Education at Central Queensland University, STEM is not just an acronym for four academic disciplines but rather a new way of thinking about the world.
“STEM is important for future generations because future jobs will require problem-solving skills, innovative and creative thinking, and digital skills,” she says. “Future generations need to learn how to think critically and flexibly in order to adapt to this rapidly changing world.”
While many of our major universities have embraced new teaching models for STEM – such as machine learning and contextual reasoning using artificial intelligence – this revolution has yet to reach our primary and secondary schools.
Dr Pfeiffer says that only a minority of Australia’s primary teachers have an educational background in a STEM discipline – fewer than one in three primary school teachers had completed any tertiary study in computing or information technology.
“The most immediate need is for teachers of primary years, where time spent on science averages seven per cent,” she says, quoting a 2015 OECD report. “The dream of some teachers is to see a STEM specialist in every primary school in Australia – even if this means STEM experts devote some time to their local school.”
In addition to channelling more STEM resources into the education system, the new Morrison government is being urged to strengthen gender equity in STEM in Australia.
Year 12 participation rates for girls in subjects such as advanced maths, physics and chemistry are dramatically below that of their male counterparts – despite the fact that female enrolment in higher education is 30 per cent above males.
Critics say that the under-utilisation of female STEM talent is not simply a question of gender inequality but is a threat to Australia’s prosperity.
“It’s not just an equality perspective that’s important here, it’s a business imperative,” says Australia’s first Women in STEM ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith.
The Women in STEM Decadal Plan, launched in Canberra earlier this year, outlines six pathways to strengthen gender equity in STEM over the next 10 years. The plan is currently being evaluated by both government and industry.