A Federal Government committee has warned that there must be more investment in quality STEM education if Australia is to turn back the “decay curve” of STEM-capable students and grow its “nascent but promising” innovation ecosystem.
In a report into its Inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training stated that the “quantity and quality” of Australia’s university STEM graduates is dependent on the quality of STEM education in schools – which isn’t great.
The key problem, stated Committee chair Andrew Laming, is that educators undertaking the teaching of STEM subjects are not themselves adequately qualified.
“Unfortunately, in some schools, STEM subjects, particularly maths, are not taught by teachers who have a specific proficiency in those subjects,” he said.
Pointing to a Position Paper of STEM from the Office of the Chief Scientist, the report highlighted the fact that only 16 percent of year 4 students in 2011 were taught science by a teacher who specialised or majored in science, and only 20 percent had a teacher who specialised in mathematics. Furthermore, fewer than one in three primary teachers had completed any tertiary study in computing or IT.
According to Australia’s chief scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, English and maths are the two subjects where it is critical to begin learning early, and if left, are harder to pick up again further down the line.
He told the Committee, “If you are not taught maths and English well in primary school it is almost inconceivable that you will get back on and do it well with a secondary school start or a tertiary start, and that does not apply to nearly anything else.”
Poor quality of education is flowing on to secondary school, where it was found the number of students, both girls and boys, electing not to study maths once able to choose their own subjects in year 11 tripled in the decade from 2001 to 2011.
The proportion of girls leaving maths jumped from 7.5 percent to 21.5 percent, while the number of boys grew from 3.1 percent to 9.8 percent.
Along with the poor quality of education, the Committee heard that other key reasons for this include the fact students don’t perceive the relevance of STEM subjects to their everyday life, and that students believe they will get a higher ATAR score by studying other subjects – particularly as maths isn’t a prerequisite for most tertiary STEM degrees.
Laming said, “One of the main concerns the Committee has is that participation in STEM education at the secondary school level has declined significantly over the past two decades, particularly for female students and the Committee is equally concerned that Australian students’ mathematical literacy skills have been in general decline.”
As such, a number of the 38 recommendations the Committee has made focus on efforts to boost STEM education.
Among recommendations aimed at boosting the quality of teachers, the Committee has recommended that maths be re-established as a prerequisite for students obtaining an ATAR.
To create greater links between STEM and business and boost commercialisation efforts, the Committee also recommended that tertiary STEM courses have a business or entrepreneurship unit incorporated into their coursework, and that university faculties incorporate a unit of business, statistics, technology or entrepreneurship in their non-STEM degrees.
However, it’s not all STEM, with the Committee also recommending that the National Innovation and Science Agenda “explicitly recognise” the importance of STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths – creative digital skills, the creative industries, and “the arts more generally”.
In a submission to the Committee, La Trobe University stated, that a singular focus on STEM capabilities rather that STEAM “is less likely to balance the diverse skills and competencies that are necessary to understand and respond to the changing structure of the Australian economy”.
Looking at the more creative industries, the Committee recommends that the Australian Government introduce a funding scheme based on the former Australian Interactive Games Fund.
The Fund has been a point of contention for several years; introduced under the Labor government in 2012, the fund birthed a number of game development studios before being axed by the Liberal government in 2014.
A Senate Inquiry held in 2015 to investigate the future of Australia’s game development industry delivered its findings in early 2016 though no action has yet been taken on its recommendations.
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