The challenges of STEM learning in Australian schools

A recently released report by the Australia Council for Educational Research (ACER) has examined the challenges for improving the outcomes of Australian students in STEM learning and recommended a number of key initiatives, IEUA Victoria Tasmania Branch Assistant Secretary Cathy Hickey writes.

STEM education has come into much sharper focus over the last few years and the report The Challenges of STEM Learning in Australia Schools looks at the economic drivers, the progress to date, and the key challenges and possible ways forward in respect to strategies to increase participation and learning outcomes in STEM education in schools.

STEM contains four discipline areas. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are the most common disciplines linked to the STEM acronym within the school sector. As well as working scientifically, STEM involves students working mathematically, working digitally or technically, and working like an engineer. STEM has come to mean the integration of these disciplines, either in any dyad, triad or ideally all four discipline, the goal being to see students working in an integrative way.

The imperative

The report outlines the imperatives for STEM education. Two arguments are commonly put forward – one is that STEM is a predominant social imperative, necessary to solve real world challenges, and we need people with strong STEM literacy in order to address the complex challenges facing the world. The other is that STEM literacy is a pressing economic need. The report highlights the status of STEM in respect to ‘jobs of the future’. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2014) reported growth in STEM related jobs to be 1.5 times the growth of other jobs between 2006 and 2011.

Key challenges

The report identifies three key areas in which the school sector has its best chance in making a difference to student participation and outcomes: broadening access to and monitoring STEM learning in schools, rethinking the STEM curriculum, and building the STEM teaching workforce. The report places emphasis on investing in solutions.

The challenges of each area are explored in the report, as well as key areas for policy and strategy adoption (and dare we say resourcing!) are recommended.

Building the STEM teacher workforce

Over the last few years there have been some piecemeal approaches to tackling this issue in Australia, and the report recommends more data to understand where we might best target such incentives, as well as data over time to gauge to what extent incentives or policies are working.

Some options include targeting school leavers with strong STEM results to undertake a STEM degree and then a teaching qualification; STEM degree graduates to undertake a teaching qualification; mature age potential career changers from STEM to undertake a teaching qualification; experienced teachers from overseas to teach in Australia (regional and low SES). Other options are broader in focus – lowering the rate of students dropping out of STEM subjects at senior secondary level; lowering the rate of initial teacher education students dropping out of teaching degrees; and lowering the attrition rate of early career teachers.

These strategies are complex and need well thought out and consultative implementation, as well as adequately resource support. In particular some go to issues of teacher registration, quality training opportunities, incentive payment and support schemes; others to the broader issues involved in successfully reducing attrition rates, be they in respect to our early career teachers, ITE course students or school students.