Students are turning away from STEM at alarming rates – so how do we arrest the slide? To engage more young people, astrophysicist and STEM champion Alan Duffy says learning should be a toolkit for curious students to explore and explain the world around them.
Q. Why is science education so important for young people?
It is critical that young people become as scientifically literate as possible. We live in an age of increasing technological sophistication where the solutions to some very serious challenges in the future will require more science, not less.
Young students today are the voters of tomorrow, and while only some of them are involved in designing, creating or implementing future technologies, all of them will be asked to judge the solutions to some very complex situations.
Q. How can schools prepare students for the jobs of the future?
While it’s impossible to accurately predict the exact nature of a future role – significant numbers of which haven’t even been created — it’s fair to say that some things never change, and that’s exactly what schools should focus on.
The basic laws of science, mathematics and engineering principles will only be more relevant for future roles than they are today as industries become ever more technologically advanced.
Having familiarity of computer coding will be valuable, although advances in AI may require less hands-on programming and more high-level guidance of self-developing code; the need to understand how it works will be critical.
Having that grounding in STEM and computer science basics will be invaluable, but so too is the ability to learn.
Students will have to constantly be finding out solutions, learning new skills and teaching themselves how to use as yet unimagined tools.
So schools should teach the basics, but in a way that has the students learning how to learn; then they can be ready for whatever the future holds.
Q. What makes STEM subjects attractive to students?
Making STEM subjects relevant to a student’s life is an easy way for them to see the value of what can otherwise be highly abstract concepts.
For example, the fact that time ticks slower the closer you are to the Earth’s surface is a bizarre outcome from Einstein’s General Relativity and that will appeal to certain students. But perhaps you’ll find more will be interested if you mention that this causes the atomic clocks in space to race ahead of the more slowly moving clocks on Earth.
This would result in the satnav on your smartphone being inaccurate by 100m within hours if not corrected.
That’s why we explore scientific discoveries in context and in an approachable way at Australia’s Science Channel.
STEM is not a subject to be learnt for a test, it’s a toolkit to explore and explain the world around you.
Q. How do we encourage more female students into STEM?
There is a challenging and deeply seated falsehood in our society that STEM is for boys, and somehow girls aren’t interested – or worse yet, incapable – of pursuing it as a topic.
It’s simply not fair that female students are missing out on the joy of studying science or maths, or the incredible careers to be had in engineering and technology.
If we hope to solve the challenges around us as a society we need our best and brightest to work in STEM, and you won’t get that with only half the population.
I believe that numerous efforts across society are required. For example, the new Lego female scientists campaign, the raft of new girl coding clubs, and ensuring TV shows featuring awesome female scientists like Professor Emma Johnston. Collectively, these will slowly change the view of scientists being old, white men.
Targeted gender equity programs at university to retain more of our top female researchers from leaving are part of the other solution to ensuring younger students know they should be in science.
Q. Are STEM competitions a way to attract more students to the field?
STEM competitions are an incredible way to show how fun science is. These activities reward experimentation and ingenuity, rather than only working to the ‘right’ answer like a school test.
To do the best work in STEM demands teamwork and for some students these competitions are a great way to meet likeminded colleagues and feel welcomed into a community.
While not everyone might enjoy the pressure competitions can bring, I suspect hackathons or robotic competitions would appeal to many!
Q. How does educating parents and communities about STEM trickle down to young kids?
Careers are guided by parents and the community. The choices a student makes is strongly influenced by their family, which means if we want students to feel confident about a career in STEM we also have to reach out to the parents.
I want to see parents and communities empowered by asking and answering questions. Rather than shy away from their child’s question in fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing or not knowing the answer, it would be great if they could search for an answer together.
That is the nature of STEM, and that would undoubtedly trickle down to the youngest.
Q. What impact do STEM role models and mentors have on the next generation?
I believe that mentors and role models play an incredibly important role when considering a career. If you don’t know it’s a target, how can you possibly aim for it?
A number of students are worried about their future careers, and it’s important that we have those people who understand that world best to be available to these students and honestly explain how they can have that career in STEM.
At the Ultimate Careers guide we often feature industry leaders to explain how they succeeded and why; making clear that there is a fantastic career out there and how you can find it!
Q. What kind of STEM training would be beneficial for practicing teachers?
Our teachers are asked to do so much already – far more than I think is sustainable – so I would like to see them supported more before we ask them to go beyond their specialisation.
That’s why we created Australia’s Science Channel Education site for teachers, which supports teachers with up-to-date breaking news stories and how they can use them in the classroom, all mapped to the Australian Curriculum for Science, particularly around the Science as a Human Endeavour strand.
Q. How should schools implement new STEM programs?
I would tell them to get in contact with their local Science Teachers Association and see what resources are out there.
They are not the first school to try and implement STEM programs; others have been there before and can help you avoid their mistakes, as well as take advantage of the latest thoughts about ways to ramp up your program.
You don’t need a scanning electron microscope in your school to explore the wonders of this universe, there are so many hands on experiments that can be as engaging.
Start off with small projects, and enthusiastic teachers, and grow it from there.
For students worrying about the future check out the Ultimate Career guide at: https://uc.australiascience.tv/
For anyone interested in the latest discoveries head to Australia’s Science Channel https://australiascience.tv/
For teachers see those discoveries explained with curriculum aligned resources at https://education.australiascience.tv/