How we can spread the STEM message in schools
Dr Finkel wrote an article in the Australian Financial Review on 23 April 2018 on spreading the STEM message in schools, and the work of the STEM Partnerships Forum. The full article is below.
Last year, the global retail giant Amazon announced its intention to build a second mega-company headquarters in North America. Cities were invited to submit their bids. In the end, more than 200 applied, in a scramble dubbed “the biggest business sweepstakes in a generation”.
Here are some of Amazon’s requirements.
“A highly educated labour pool”. “A strong university system”. “A cultural and community environment for long-term success”. And information on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs in schools.
Amazon’s emphasis on education will ring true to Australian employers. Good luck attracting talented workers with families to communities where the local schools are second-rate. And good luck growing or sustaining your business without a culture of aspiration and a pipeline of skills.
Yes, business cares about education. And yes, business cares enough to get directly involved.
For at least 100 years, businesses in Australia have partnered with schools to put resources into schoolkids’ hands. Competitions, equipment kits, career days, worksite tours – it would be easy to take that long-term commitment for granted.
Surprisingly, we have little awareness of which programs work, nor do we provide much guidance to businesses on how to work optimally with schools. We ought to know what works. And we ought to spread what works to many more kids.
With that goal in mind, I was commissioned to lead the development of a report to COAG education ministers on how to assist industry in their STEM partnerships with schools, released on Monday.
No one can look ahead to 2040, when a baby born today might enter the workforce, with perfect knowledge. So programs focused on developing a narrow set of job-specific skills in schools would be pointless.
We can say that the future has the space for many talents: communication, creative expression and caring for others will all be required. But STEM education will be essential. Everyone will need to function in industries constantly adapting to technology. A substantial minority should leave Year 12 equipped with the fundamentals to pursue a STEM degree, to be the technology makers and shapers who position our companies to compete.
Of these fundamentals, nothing is more important than mathematics – the language of science. And the fundamentals need to be taught well, because the quality of STEM education is as important as the number of students enrolled.
What works? In a word, aspiration. Kids need to aspire in order to achieve; and what they most aspire to do is tackle real-world problems. So instead of parading STEM experts into class to talk about their careers, our key recommendation was flipping the focus to the problems those experts were working to solve, from making better batteries to cutting down on pesticide use on farms.
No business wants to invest in an unwelcome or poorly-designed program – a serious deterrent, given there are very few publicly available resources for a company looking to reach out to schools, align with the curriculum, link into a good existing program, or learn from successful partnerships. We recommended a resource toolkit, with a centralised point of contact, to make it easy for businesses to get it right.
Throughout the consultations I sat around a table with leaders in industry and education exchanging views. I suspect they were surprised by the consistency. Time and time again, three themes recurred.
One, the ATAR, and the open secret that students pick easier subjects to get higher scores. It is frustrating to all concerned that, year after year, students with the drive to excel feel pressured to drop out of science and advanced mathematics. If our recommendation is adopted, the incentives will be reviewed to ensure that students reaching high are rewarded.
Two, the difficulty in gauging outcomes across a complex and disconnected school system. It’s not a new idea, but many think its time has come: a single unique student identifier that would follow every student through primary, secondary and tertiary education, from government schools to Catholic or independent schools, and from one state or territory to another. Students would benefit individually from the ability to share their learning history with teachers at their next school. They would benefit collectively, from the insights that education experts could draw from the de-identified data. Any such education passport would need to be governed by strict protections for student privacyand the student’s right to decide which information to share.
Three, the support we give to teachers to pursue subject-specific professional development. We need STEM teachers to be up-to-date in their knowledge and equipped to teach STEM. If we expect it, we need to resource it: it’s that simple. Industry can assist with information on how STEM is being harnessed. But education authorities have to make it a priority and take the lead.
Education is often a subject that divides us. Our hope, with this report, is that we find common cause. Any future-minded business that looks at Australia should see a nation proud of its excellence in STEM. And to get there, we’ve got to put education first.