Next-generation schools: meeting the STEM challenge

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The curriculum framework will help students develop motivation in STEM, and skills in teamwork, communication and self-confidence.

Emeritus Professor Doreen Thomas FTSE, Emeritus Professor Robin King FTSE, Professor Jan Van Driel and Dr Lachlan Blackhall FTSE

With a long tail of underperforming students, Australian schools must make changes to develop students who can meet future global challenges head-on.

Students who graduate today are entering the workforce at a time of increasing global uncertainty. They will need to navigate threats of climate change, and ongoing speculation about the changing nature of work and the number of careers they will have in their lifetimes.

In this context, it is vital that schools adequately prepare students to excel in this environment. So how should next-generation schools prepare students for the future, dynamic world?

Schools of the future will need to increase their emphasis on STEM teaching and learning so that students are better prepared for tertiary education and STEM-intensive professions.

A well-designed curriculum will embrace educational technology so that students will be motivated to study in a personal way, fewer students will be left behind and more students will achieve their true potential.

In 2013, the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) compared STEM education internationally. Their report stated that governments around the world want to lift the overall scientific literacy of their populations and to draw most or all school students into senior secondary studies in STEM.

For Australia, STEM skills are seen as essential for future economic and social well-being with most occupations requiring more STEM skills and knowledge.

But the small numbers of graduates in mathematics and information technologies tell a different story. And the number of Australian students enrolling in engineering is declining – it’s a major concern in the face of the many complex technological challenges for society.

Australia is falling behind many countries who are improving their school-level STEM provision, participation and performance, placing both our absolute and relative positions at risk. Australia’s wide distribution in school student achievement is a particular issue, with a long tail of underperforming students.

Australia needs to provide these students with opportunities to participate in the economy of the future, where STEM will be critically important. The many excellent educational initiatives in schools must be available to all.

Australian Schools of the Future: All students will be educated in STEM

In Australian schools of the future, the study of mathematics and at least one science-based subject will be compulsory to the end of Year 12.

Senior students will take the level of mathematics that best suits their ability and aspirations.

The current four senior mathematics subjects (Essential, General, Mathematical Methods and Specialist) in the national curriculum already accommodate the required range. And all states and territories offer a range of science-based subjects, including in engineering, digital technology and design.

The challenge, however, is not to devise more subjects. It is to increase participation in higher-level mathematics and science subjects.

Effective STEM education initiatives around the world typically share a common aspect: students work on and become engaged with authentic real-world problems

To receive an ATAR for eligibility to enter university, students should gain an acceptable grade in at least General Mathematics on par with the current requirement of English.

For the more strongly quantitative disciplines, such as science, engineering, IT, economics, health sciences, architecture and design, students should complete Mathematical Methods (often termed intermediate) or Specialist Mathematics.

However, a greater push for the study of STEM should not detract from the study of culture and the arts, as jobs of the future will require intuition and good interpersonal communication skills.

Australian Schools of the Future: Mathematics and science teachers will inspire students through a deep knowledge of their discipline

Research has shown that highly effective teachers have a deep understanding of the subjects they teach. They make mathematics fun and exciting and hence inspire, through first studying mathematics themselves and then learning to communicate it.

Many of the countries that are strongest in STEM education are those with a commitment to discipline-based teacher qualifications and professional development.

But the 2013 ACOLA report highlighted capacity gaps in Australia’s STEM teaching, with a clear indication that the supply is insufficient, particularly in rural and remote communities.

This results in a large “teaching out-of-field” problem, especially in the critical years of late primary and early secondary schooling.

A recent report from the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute indicates that out-of-field teaching in mathematics continues to pervade Australian secondary schools.

Out-of-field teachers teach an estimated 21-38 per cent of Years 7 to 10 mathematics classes, depending on the definition of “out-of-field”.

Replacement of these teachers with fully qualified mathematics teachers will be a major task. It will require increasing both the numbers of students taking mathematics degrees (or majors) and the proportion of these graduates choosing to undertake teacher training.

Immediate action should also be taken to raise the expertise of current teachers teaching out-of-field in mathematics and science, through specific programs such as the Primary Mathematics and Science Specialists Program, with 200 participating teachers per year, provided by the Victorian Department of Education and Training.

Similar programs are needed for secondary teachers, and across Australia.

Australian Schools of the Future will deliver STEM knowledge and skills from within the curriculum with less reliance on extracurricular activities

In the national school STEM curriculum, children are already expected to be digitally literate and to have understanding and skills in coding. Future primary school teachers – not just secondary teachers – must have confidence and knowledge across the STEM spectrum.

All next-generation schools will be well resourced. The curriculum framework will allow teachers flexibility to teach contemporary topics within their subject areas, and expose the connections between science, engineering and technology underpinning many modern systems.

The curriculum framework will also require senior students to undertake authentic, creative and collaborative projects. They’ll develop motivation in STEM, and skills in teamwork, communication and self-confidence – attributes often lacking in senior students today.

Currently, extra-curricular activities develop these attributes, many with industry support, but these are not available to all students nor are devised to link directly into the formal STEM curriculum subjects.

Next-generation teachers will have more systematic and more frequent professional development in integrated-STEM pedagogy and in their discipline.

Some of this may be acquired through short courses or other interactions delivered by university science and engineering schools, and industry. This means the apparent need for extra-curricular STEM activities will be reduced, and the value of many of these activities will be mainstreamed into all schools for the benefit of all students.

That said, as today, input and support from STEM professionals and industry partnerships will continue to be very valuable.

Industry will increasingly be willing to invest the time and effort to deeply engage with schools and ensure the brightest are attracted to STEM careers.

Students solving authentic problems in the real world

Effective STEM education initiatives around the world typically share a common aspect: students work on and become engaged with authentic real-world problems.

One excellent example is a program based in The Netherlands, called Technasium. The core of this innovation is the implementation of a subject called Research and Design, alongside the regular school subjects.

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It aims to focus on acquainting students with STEM professions, and students work on up-to-date and authentic STEM questions. This is in order to stimulate them to develop skills as competent researchers and designers.

Research and Design is taught four to six periods per week from Years 7 to 12 and is entirely project-based.

The projects are negotiated with parties that aren’t related to the school, such as local businesses. Typically, these organisations initiate the projects, acting as “clients” to provide students with real research and design problems. Students work in teams of three to five on these projects.

Currently, about 100 schools across the country have adopted this approach and are certified as Technasium.

Local industries have committed to working with these networks of schools on an ongoing basis, providing input and expertise for the projects and supervision for groups of students who do their projects mostly at school and partly on-site.

A schoolteacher supervises the groups of students, and a training and certification scheme for teachers, recognised by the government, supports the implementation of the program.

Australian Schools of the Future will teach creativity and entrepreneurship, preparing students for solving interdisciplinary problems

In addition to the strong STEM focus outlined above, a beneficial way to prepare students for this changing world is to ensure they are taught and encouraged to apply creativity.

Creativity is typically defined as new or original ideas or ways of doing something. Encouraging a focus on creativity in the classroom, including in STEM subjects, will yield students who are equipped to respond to the many and varied challenges that they will face throughout their careers.

It is frequently argued that creativity can be cultivated in tertiary and school classrooms by developing critical thinking and problem-solving; using activities that cross disciplinary boundaries; by challenging students; and by encouraging them to be reflective on their learning.

We also believe that a focus on creating impact through entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial activities is important.

Although entrepreneurship is most often associated with starting and growing a commercial business, here we take a broader view of entrepreneurship to mean identifying and solving important problems and the creation of business, operational or organisational models with a proper ethical framework, ensuring the solutions have a broad based, beneficial community impact.

While some schools in Australia have started to experiment with new entrepreneurship programs, there is yet to be a national focus on how to include these vital skills in a modern curriculum.

The challenge

It is easy to be fearful about what the future holds for students today, but it is important to realise that times of great uncertainty are often also times of great opportunity.

Students with STEM knowledge and an appreciation for creativity, who have been well taught by inspiring teachers with expertise in their disciplines, will be well placed as graduates to develop interdisciplinary solutions to complex societal problems.

With support from the broader community, schools must rise to oncoming challenges with an ambition for their students to have the know-how to lead the rest of the world.

Emeritus Professor Doreen Thomas FTSE FIEAust

Chair of the Academy's Education Forum

Emeritus Professor Doreen Thomas FTSE FIEAust was Head of the School of Electrical, Mechanical and Infrastructure Engineering at the University of Melbourne. She holds a DPhil (Mathematics), University of Oxford. She was a founding director of MineOptima, through which her mining software has been commercialised. She has been recognised with a national teaching award for her contribution to engineering education and mentorship.

Robin King
Emeritus Professor Robin King FTSE, HonFIEAust

Australian Council of Engineering Deans

Emeritus Professor Robin King FTSE, HonFIEAust was Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of SA’s Division of IT, Engineering and the Environment during 1998-2007. Since then he has led national engineering education projects for the Australian Council of Engineering Deans. He is a past chair of Engineers Australia’s Accreditation Board and of the Academy’s Education Forum.