The STEM Imperative?
Jun 2016

Many reports indicate that Australia has a shortage of professionals in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. STEM completions at universities are stagnant, the number of students in Year 12 completing STEM subjects is declining and businesses are seeing a shortage of locally qualified people.

Digital disruption both creates challenge and opportunity. Freelancing has seen exponential growth as technology enables and drives the outsourcing of both skilled and unskilled jobs to the lowest bidder, irrespective of geographic location or time zone. Reports cite statistics of jobs that will no longer exist in the next 20 years whilst the exponential march of progress gives us glimpses of the jobs that haven’t been invented yet. No one would deny, at least I hope not, that automation is a part of our immediate and long-term future.

For Australia to continue to prosper economically we hear on a daily basis that we will need an appropriately skilled workforce; one that is skilled in STEM. Places of formal education dictate to a certain extent then, the interests and expertise that students develop. But what do schools mean when we start talking about STEM? What can schools do to encourage interest in what is an incredibly exciting area?

A traditional view has us thinking about the discreet subjects that the acronym entails ie. Science, Mathematics and Computer Science. An in-depth knowledge, skillset and expertise of a particular specialization is absolutely important, but increasingly major discoveries are happening at the interstices between disciplines and this requires depth in a specific field but also an ability to see and make connections more broadly.

In K-12 education, I have heard of STEM labs that house a few 3D printers, MakerSpaces, STEM class or even a few proclaim, “We do STEM!” This is all great stuff but I would argue that during the formative stages of schooling that STEM shouldn’t be seen as a subject, a room or a lab – but more a way of thinking.

For teachers it’s a way of thinking about curriculum design that includes interdisciplinary topics, contemporary disciplines, global perspectives, real applications, choice & flexibility.

For students it is a learning process that mimics the natural engagement with the world that they exhibit from a very early age. Students don’t naturally categorize the world around them into discreet subjects devoid of meaning. They relate what they are learning to their specific context and the connections that each part that they are experiencing has to the whole.

There is a growing need for the broad skills that STEM fosters. Systems-level thinking, problem finding and solving, imagination and agency are but a few. But we are not going to get there by teaching students what amounts to essentially clerical skills. Instead of students learning about Microsoft Word or PowerPoint, having them learn to program a computer or build a website is infinitely better. Better again is for them to have a context that sparks their curiosity and instils in them a passion and love of learning.

I have spoken about the brilliant interdisciplinary F1 in Schools program before, where students form teams and;

  • Design and manufacture a miniature F1 Car to travel down a 20m track in the shortest possible time using a specified amount of energy.
  • Utilise Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) software and wind tunnels to help perfect the aerodynamics of the design.
  • Utilise Finite Element Analysis (FEA) software to increase sustainability and reliability of the design.
  • Utilise Rapid Prototyping strategies to help construct components of their car.
  • Develop a 20 page portfolio which highlights the design iterations undertaken, the innovation included in the design and the interaction they had with industry through the design process.
  • Develop a marketing and promotions plan to sell their team’s capabilities and end product to industry. This includes the development of a 3m x 1m display booth.
  • Generate sponsorship by promoting their capabilities to industry and then manage all budget items associated with their team
  • Implement a communications strategy to ensure that sponsors are kept informed of progress
  • Make a 10-minute formal presentation to a panel of judges on their project highlighting the work they have undertaken, their innovation and what they have learnt by participating in the project.
  • Present to a panel of Engineers their design, the manufacturing strategies they have adopted and the unique engineering technologies they have applied to the development of their car;

but let’s take something as simple as the quadratic equation. How could this be STEM-ified?

David Perkins in Future Wise suggests,

“What if we viewed quadratic equations as ways of modelling growth? Today’s world includes dozens of kinds of growth – in populations, markets, the spread of diseases, the proliferation of media. To go with growth there is also loss, for instance the systematic loss of biological species over the past decades and centuries.”

Instead of an exercise in Algebra that is devoid of meaning for many students, potentially all functions – linear, exponential, cubic etc. – could be explored in this way to spark an interest that connects with and enhances a students understanding of the world. I’m not talking about the token “application” question at the end of a textbook chapter here, I’m talking about a real interdisciplinary project. Not only understanding the algebra, statistics and probabilities associated with models of growth, but researching, using real data, engaging in computer modelling, testing hypothesis, making connections across disciplines and suggesting ways to accelerate or inhibit growth depending on the context.

That’s what a focus of STEM does in my book. Physics, Robotics, Coding and Mathematics are all essential in any STEM-based curriculum. But let’s set our sights a bit bigger and give students real contexts for learning the more “traditional” stuff.

Written by Adrian Camm.