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The STEM debate continued…

 

 

The majority have accepted that STEM learning is fundamental for a progressive education system, but it has its detractors. In this article we review the trajectory of this ongoing topic of discussion.

The current buzz around STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) learning has been building for some time, yet the discussion hasn’t yet been normalised. If anything, discussion around STEM’s importance in Australian education only continues to be growing.

Why the ongoing focus on STEM-based learning and how important is it, really, for schools to ensure they’re onboard with STEM?

STEM: A Brief History

In January 2014, the Australian Government initiated a review of the Australian Curriculum, with a resulting report released in October that year.1 It was at this point that the Government announced an additional $12 million in funding to go toward STEM initiatives, forming a key pillar of its Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda under the ‘Restoring the focus on STEM in schools initiative’.2

Soon after, in 2015, PricewaterhouseCoopers released a report that found that technology and innovation represent both a challenge and an opportunity to Australian growth and jobs. Entitled, A Smart move: Future-proofing Australia’s Workforce3, the report included some oft-repeated findings, such as:

• 44 per cent or 5.1 million current Australian jobs are at risk from digital disruption in 20 years

• 75 per cent of the fast growing occupations require STEM skills

• Transforming one per cent of our workforce into STEM roles would add $57.4 billion to GDP

• Top three occupations least at risk in the workforce of the future are doctors, nurses and teachers

• The top three occupations at risk are accountants, cashiers and administration workers

Naturally, the discussion returned during the election campaign this year, with Labor promising $400 million for teaching scholarships aimed at encouraging recent STEM graduates to enter the education field.4 At the same time, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull floated the idea of making maths and science a requirement for finishing high school, stating it was a “big priority” for the Government.

“In my generation, you had to do maths or science to complete high school. Many parts of Australia now, you don’t have to do that,” he said.5

The Challenge

With bipartisan support (if you include the support of many schools, teachers and parents, you might even say ‘unilateral support’), you could expect the discussion around STEM learning to begin to die down to become once more eclipsed by discussions of NAPLAN and Gonski reforms.

Instead, a new report from The Grattan Institute, along with accompanying statements made by its Program Director for Higher Education, Andrew Norton, the situation has flared up again.

Released in August and dubbed, Mapping Australian higher education 2016, the report led the Melbourne-based think tank to warn that encouraging young students to pursue higher education in STEM-based courses could leave an increasing number of graduates unemployed.6

Norton strengthened the statement by saying it would be preferable if fewer students chose to pursue science at the tertiary level.

“If people think doing a Bachelor in Science will give them skills that are highly valued in the labour market then they should probably look at studying something else,” he said.

According to The Grattan Institute, while science has added 26,800 local students since 2009, only 51 per cent of science graduates in 2015 found full-time work in the four months following graduation. That’s 17 per cent less than the national average.

Graduates from life sciences degrees have particularly poor chances in the job market, but even maths and chemistry graduates have an employment rate below the average.

“We’ve never seen a cohort that has done this badly – we are in uncharted territory,” said Norton. “I’m very nervous for the career prospects for recent science graduates.”

Perhaps even more surprising, IT graduates also struggle to find relevant full-time work after completing their degree, with a third of recent graduates not finding relevant employment after four months.

Naturally, this story drew plenty of attention as it asked educators to question whether there was a practical need for inspiring students towards STEM fields if they weren’t going to find relevant jobs in those fields. The argument is reminiscent to the common objection to teaching basic arithmetic – if a student has access to a calculator (or today, a phone), when will there ever be a practical need for long division? On the other hand, it may ask some to question whether Australian educators really need to double down on STEM learning, as we may already be over catering for it.

A Counterpoint

Having shared The Grattan Institute’s story through our website and fortnightly eNewsletter, Education Matterswas later contacted by the office of Jillian Segal, Chairman of the General Sir John Monash Foundation.

Ms Segal, a prominent businesswoman, also holds the positions of Chairman of the Australia Israel Chamber of Commerce NSW, Non-executive Director of the National Australia Bank and The Garvan Institute of Medical Research as well as being Deputy Chancellor of UNSW Australia. She contends with The Grattan Institute’s thesis in this matter and raised a number of specific points for educators and parents of students to consider, firstly that The Grattan Institute was “making the assumption that a science degree is a vocational degree which trains people to be scientists”.

“This very narrow interpretation leads them to the observation that ‘science graduates are pushed into a general labour market in which they must compete with graduates from other fields’, and to the dangerous conclusion that ‘ideally more of science students who would already prefer another course could take it instead’.

“We would argue that a science degree teaches skills which are important in any workplace: it is a foundational degree which encourages scientific literacy and challenges students to value the critical lessons learned in the process of discovery – creativity, patience and attention to detail.

Segal also points out that The Grattan Institute’s own report states that ‘STEM employers report that their employeers with STEM qualifications are better at problem solving and critical thinking than are employees without STEM qualifications’, seemingly contradicting the implication that STEM-based graduates may be somehow less employable than their non-STEM counterparts.

“We know that almost all of Australia’s industries, including the mining industry, the banking industry as well as the retail industry, will be subject to major, technology-driven disruption and will need technology-literate people to counter that disruption with new innovation,” Segal said. “Moreover, most of the jobs of the future will exist in industries we cannot yet predict. The key attributes of successful workers will be an enquiring mind, an analytical approach to problem solving and a sense of curiosity and enquiry. These are the attributes fostered in a science degree that will make graduates attractive to a whole range of different disciplines.”

A closer looks at The Grattan Institute’s report indicates how misleading inferences may be drawn, as it emphasises the near-term employment of science and IT graduates of bachelor degrees, whereas a bachelor degree in many STEM-related fields is not considered a qualification for a career in that field. Instead students are generally expected to go on to complete further study in the form of a postgraduate degree, as they would in the fields of medicine or law.

The report’s data also confirms this, with nearly 50 per cent of science graduates going on to further study. Of these 89 per cent find employment in their preferred area.

When asked about the Government’s role in supporting STEM education, including what’s being done currently, Segal described a complex balance of enhanced education outcomes, tax incentives and organisational change.

“Key initiatives will improve linkages between research and academia where universities are teaching the STEM disciplines, and business which needs innovation to manage disruption,” she said. “Government is not purely for creating jobs but to create an environment which encourages investment in the start-up economy and an ecosystem of innovation.”

Citing the Government’s Innovation Statement, Segal highlighted the key levers of “tax incentives to educational initiatives to changes to insolvency laws”.

“As these are rolled out, including the work of the digital transformation office (the DTO), the engines of the innovation economy will be fired. This will require more workers with science mindsets.”

Jobs and Growth

While the discussion at the political level has been tightly focused on encouraging and training more STEM-minded students, and although Segal’s points are certainly valid, there is still something of an air of contradiction in the Government’s approach.

As state-funded research funding continues to dry up in many disciplines, some of our largest STEM-related organisations have suffered, including the CSIRO. Just last year it was announced that the Government-funded agency would have to lose around 275 jobs, many of which from climate-science departments. One in particular was especially lamented in the press – that of veteran scientists and Global sea-level expert, John Church.7

The reaction from the international science community was immediate, and overwhelmingly negative. In early August the Government was seen to bow to this pressure by having the newly appointed Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Greg Hunt announce additional funding along with the replacement of 15 climate science jobs.8

While the Government’s dwindling interest in creating science-related jobs is no doubt exacerbating the situation, Segal is firmly of the opinion that the growth has to be found in the private sector.

“In relation to science-based jobs I do not think the issue is as narrow as jobs with the CSIRO,” she said. “As noted above, I think the majority of jobs in the STEM sector will not be government jobs but will come out of the private sector, out of start-ups and new services whether it be data, technology, or research related to more traditional industries within the private sector.”

Whether the current attention on STEM education is to bear fruit will probably depend largely on your perspective. For some educators, this discussion has been more about introducing new buzzwords into the field of learning for concepts that were already being adequately applied. For others it may be a trigger to embrace new ideas in the classroom, such as coding and computational thinking.

The one thing that everyone can agree on is this: we simply don’t know how technology will continue to disrupt industries and our lives. For that reason it seems a safe bet that we should strive to be the ones in control of it, rather than ceding control to international interests.

References:

1. Department of Education and Training (2014). Review of the Australian Curriculum Final Report. https://docs.education.gov.au/node/36269

2. Department of Education and Training (2015). Restoring the focus on STEM in schools initiative. https://www.studentsfirst.gov.au/restoring-focus-stem-schools-initiative

3. PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia (2015). A smart move: future-proofing Australia’s workforce by growing skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). https://pwc.docalytics.com/v/a-smart-move-pwc-stem-report-april-2015d

4. Arlington, K. (2016). Labor to invest $400m to ensure all high school STEM teachers are qualified. The Sydney Morning Herald. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/federal-election-2016/labor-to-invest-400m-to-ensure-all-high-school-stem-teachers-are-qualified-20160512-gotoou.html

5. Bagshaw, E. (2016). Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: Make maths and science compulsory. The Sydney Morning Herald. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/federal-election-2016/federal-election-2016-prime-minister-malcolm-turnbull-make-maths-and-science-compulsory-20160619-gpmobe.html

6. Education Matters magazine (2016). Argument against STEM focus (online only). http://educationmattersmag.com.au/argument-against-stem-focus/

7. Hannam, P. (2016). Global sea-level expert John Church made to walk the plank by CSIRO. The Sydney Morning Herald. http://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/global-sealevel-expert-john-church-made-to-walk-the-plank-by-csiro-20160513-gov0k9.html

8. Wild Magazine (2016). ‘Step in right direction’ as CSIRO to refocus on climate science (online only). http://wild.com.au/news/csiro-refocus-climate-science/