The STEM crisis: What the technology sector can do to help
The past two decades have seen growing awareness of the role STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) play in preparing young Australians for the jobs of today – and tomorrow.
A dearth of teachers with tertiary qualifications in these vital disciplines has meant many young people studying science and maths subjects have not received access to high-quality teaching during their secondary school years.
According to the Australian Council for Educational Research, at least 20% of maths and physics teachers are teaching outside their field of expertise. This occurs most commonly in the junior years of high school. It's a critical formative stage when an educator's expertise and enthusiasm can pique – or quash – students' interest in persisting with STEM subjects to senior level.
The problem looks set to worsen, due to a looming succession problem. ACER's research shows that 40% of physics teachers currently working in the Australian system is expected to retire within the next 10 years. Sufficient replacements have yet to emerge, with only 10% of trainee science teachers choosing to specialise in physics.
Halting the decline
There are plans afoot to remedy this situation, albeit belatedly. During his opening address at the Australian Science Teachers Conference in July 2018, the federal Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, said decisive and specific action was needed in the area of STEM.
Senator Birmingham announced the government's goal was to ensure every secondary school had access to specialist teachers, to teach science and maths at a high level within the next decade.
“Australia can do better… by our students, by ensuring they're taught by people with experience, expertise and enthusiasm of all the subjects they're teaching,” he told the audience.
That's a long-term fix if the government can pull it off. It's a big if, given teaching salaries for individuals with mathematical qualifications, in particular, have historically struggled to keep pace with the more lucrative remuneration other sectors can offer.
Scholarships, ongoing professional development and a pay scale that offers greater parity with other STEM-related careers may need to be offered if the teaching profession hopes to attract and retain more of the country's best and brightest.
Assisting existing teachers
While new measures are clearly required to attract more top talent to the classroom, helping existing educators up their game and motivate their students to persist with STEM studies should also be a priority.
Many recent graduates, particularly those who come to the classroom direct from university, lack knowledge and awareness of how the STEM disciplines are applied and valued outside the educational setting.
They commonly struggle to link theory with practice and consequently are unable to inspire students to look beyond the textbooks and to aspire to a rewarding and well-paid career in a STEM-related field.
Extra support in the classroom may make it easier for early career teachers to hone their pedagogical skills and for experienced educators to ensure their STEM knowledge remains current.
Turning to technology
The technology sector has an important role to play in supporting STEM teachers inside and outside the classroom. The industry can cite a plethora of individuals who've forged exciting and lucrative careers and founded global companies off the back of a STEM-centric education.
They include household name millennial entrepreneurs, such as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel and, closer to home, Atlassian billionaires Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar.
Fostering closer ties between schools and industry leading ICT organisations could see the latter delivering programs which help students appreciate how STEM skills frequently form the basis of digital era entrepreneurship and how they can be parlayed into professional careers in a myriad of technical and business environments.
Taking part in software development activities, for example, can foster an appreciation for the way in which mathematics can be used to create innovative systems and products to address commercial needs.
Short internships for trainee STEM teachers could also help address the ‘relevance problem' at an educator level and foster stronger ties between schools and the real world of STEM.
Cooperation is key
Australia's STEM skills teaching crisis has been many years in the making and it's naïve to think there will be a quick fix in the offing. Concerted cooperation by an array of stakeholders from the government, education and STEM sectors will be the key to turning the tide.
Working together to find solutions is essential if the next generation of Australians is to get the skills they need to thrive in the digitally driven landscape of the next decade and beyond.