Stu­dents are turn­ing away from STEM at alarm­ing rates – so how do we ar­rest the slide?

The Australian Education Reporter - - FRONT PAGE - EMMA DAVIES

As­tro­physi­cist and STEM cham­pion Prof. Alan Duffy

Stu­dents are turn­ing away from STEM at alarm­ing rates – so how do we ar­rest the slide?

To en­gage more young peo­ple, as­tro­physi­cist and STEM cham­pion Alan Duffy says learn­ing should be a tool­kit for cu­ri­ous stu­dents to ex­plore and ex­plain the world around them.

Q. Why is sci­ence ed­u­ca­tion so im­por­tant?

It is crit­i­cal that young peo­ple be­come as sci­en­tif­i­cally lit­er­ate as pos­si­ble. We live in an age of in­creas­ing tech­no­log­i­cal so­phis­ti­ca­tion where the so­lu­tions to some very se­ri­ous chal­lenges in the fu­ture will re­quire more sci­ence, not less.

Young stu­dents to­day are the vot­ers of to­mor­row, and while only some of them are in­volved in de­sign­ing, cre­at­ing or im­ple­ment­ing fu­ture tech­nolo­gies, all of them will be asked to judge the so­lu­tions to some very com­plex sit­u­a­tions.

Q. How can schools pre­pare stu­dents for the jobs of the fu­ture?

While it’s im­pos­si­ble to ac­cu­rately pre­dict the ex­act na­ture of fu­ture jobs – sig­nif­i­cant num­bers haven’t even been cre­ated – it’s fair to say that some things never change, and that’s ex­actly what schools should fo­cus on.

The ba­sic laws of sci­ence, math­e­mat­ics and en­gi­neer­ing prin­ci­ples will only be more rel­e­vant for fu­ture roles than they are to­day, as in­dus­tries be­come more tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced.

Hav­ing fa­mil­iar­ity of com­puter cod­ing will be valu­able. Although ad­vances in AI may re­quire less hands-on pro­gram­ming and more high-level guid­ance of self-de­vel­op­ing code, the need to un­der­stand how it works will be crit­i­cal.

Hav­ing that ground­ing in STEM and com­puter sci­ence ba­sics will be in­valu­able, but so too is the abil­ity to learn.

Stu­dents will be con­stantly find­ing so­lu­tions, learn­ing new skills, and teach­ing them­selves how to use as-yet unimag­ined tools.

So schools should teach the ba­sics, but in a way that has the stu­dents learn­ing how to learn; then they can be ready for whatever the fu­ture holds.

Q. What makes STEM sub­jects at­trac­tive to stu­dents?

Mak­ing STEM sub­jects rel­e­vant to a stu­dent’s life is an easy way for them to see the value of what can oth­er­wise be highly ab­stract con­cepts.

For ex­am­ple, the fact that time ticks slower the closer you are to the Earth’s sur­face is a bizarre out­come from Ein­stein’s Gen­eral Rel­a­tiv­ity, and that will ap­peal to cer­tain stu­dents.

But per­haps you’ll find more will be in­ter­ested if you men­tion that this causes the atomic clocks in space to race ahead of the more slowly mov­ing clocks on Earth.

This would re­sult in the sat­nav on your smart­phone be­ing in­ac­cu­rate by 100m within hours if not cor­rected.

That’s why we ex­plore sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies in con­text and in an ap­proach­able way at Aus­tralia’s Sci­ence Chan­nel.

STEM is not a sub­ject to be learnt for a test, it’s a tool­kit to ex­plore and ex­plain the world around you.

Q. How do we en­cour­age more fe­male stu­dents into STEM?

There is a chal­leng­ing and deeply seated false­hood in our so­ci­ety that STEM is for boys, and girls aren’t in­ter­ested – or worse yet, in­ca­pable – of pur­su­ing it as a topic.

It’s sim­ply not fair that fe­male stu­dents are miss­ing out on the joy of study­ing sci­ence or maths, or the in­cred­i­ble ca­reers to be had in en­gi­neer­ing and tech­nol­ogy.

If we hope to solve the chal­lenges around us as a so­ci­ety we need our best and bright­est to work in STEM, and you won’t get that with only half the pop­u­la­tion.

I be­lieve that nu­mer­ous ef­forts across so­ci­ety are re­quired. For ex­am­ple, the new Lego fe­male sci­en­tists cam­paign, the raft of new girl cod­ing clubs, and en­sur­ing TV shows fea­tur­ing awe­some fe­male sci­en­tists like Pro­fes­sor Emma John­ston. Col­lec­tively, these will slowly change the view of sci­en­tists be­ing old, white men.

Tar­geted gen­der eq­uity pro­grammes at univer­sity to retain more of our top fe­male re­searchers from leav­ing are part of the other so­lu­tion to en­sur­ing younger stu­dents know they should be in sci­ence.

Q. Do STEM com­pe­ti­tions at­tract more stu­dents to the field?

STEM com­pe­ti­tions are an in­cred­i­ble way to show how fun sci­ence is. These ac­tiv­i­ties re­ward ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and in­ge­nu­ity, rather than only work­ing to the ‘right’ an­swer like a school test.

To do the best work in STEM de­mands team­work and for some stu­dents these com­pe­ti­tions are a great way to meet like­minded col­leagues and feel wel­comed into a com­mu­nity.

While not ev­ery­one might en­joy the pres­sure com­pe­ti­tions can bring, I sus­pect hackathons or ro­botic com­pe­ti­tions would ap­peal to many!

Q. How does ed­u­cat­ing par­ents and com­mu­ni­ties about STEM guide stu­dent de­ci­sions?

Ca­reers are guided by par­ents and the com­mu­nity. The choices a stu­dent makes is strongly in­flu­enced by their fam­ily, which means if we want stu­dents to feel con­fi­dent about a ca­reer in STEM we also have to reach out to the par­ents.

I want to see par­ents and com­mu­ni­ties em­pow­ered by ask­ing and an­swer­ing ques­tions. Rather than shy away from their child’s ques­tion in fear of say­ing the ‘wrong’ thing or not know­ing the an­swer, it would be great if they could search for an an­swer to­gether.

That is the na­ture of STEM, and that would un­doubt­edly trickle down to the youngest.

Q. What im­pact do STEM role mod­els and men­tors have?

I be­lieve that men­tors and role mod­els play an in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant role when con­sid­er­ing a ca­reer. If you don’t know what the tar­get is, how can you pos­si­bly aim for it?

At the Ul­ti­mate Ca­reers guide we of­ten fea­ture in­dus­try lead­ers to ex­plain how they suc­ceeded and why; mak­ing clear that there is a fan­tas­tic ca­reer out there and how you can find it!

Q. What kind of STEM train­ing would be ben­e­fi­cial for prac­tic­ing teach­ers?

Our teach­ers are asked to do so much al­ready – far more than I think is sus­tain­able – so I would like to see them sup­ported more be­fore we ask them to go beyond their spe­cial­i­sa­tion.

That’s why we cre­ated Aus­tralia’s Sci­ence Chan­nel Ed­u­ca­tion site for teach­ers, which sup­ports teach­ers with up-to-date break­ing news sto­ries and how they can use them in the class­room.

It’s all mapped to the Aus­tralian Cur­ricu­lum for Sci­ence, par­tic­u­larly around the Sci­ence as a Hu­man En­deav­our strand.

Q. How should schools im­ple­ment new STEM pro­grams?

I would tell them to get in con­tact with their lo­cal Sci­ence Teach­ers As­so­ci­a­tion and see what re­sources are avail­able.

They are not the first school to try and im­ple­ment STEM pro­grams; oth­ers have been there be­fore and can help you avoid their mis­takes, as well as take ad­van­tage of the lat­est thoughts about ways to ramp up your pro­gram.

You don’t need a scan­ning elec­tron mi­cro­scope in your school to ex­plore the won­ders of this uni­verse, there are so many hands on ex­per­i­ments that can be as en­gag­ing.

Start off with small projects, and en­thu­si­as­tic teach­ers, and grow it from there.

Pro­fes­sor Alan Duffy.

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