The place of STEM in the age of disruption

3 June 2015

A number of recent industry reports identify an urgent need for Australia to lift its performance in the area of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). All those looking for ways to encourage their students to consider pursuing STEM studies need look no more. The verdict is out - the future will be powered by STEM. But Australia is lagging and unless some worrying trends are reversed, we won't have the STEM graduates we need to meet future demands.

Many business leaders have taken up the mantra espoused by Professor Ian Chubb, the Chief Scientist of Australia, that Australia's collective ability to innovate in the age of disruption relies on a stronger commitment to advancing STEM skills. Speaking at the National Press Club in May, the Business Council of Australia's Chair Catherine Livingstone cited a publication from McKinsey: "We have reached the point where a confluence of trends, digital disruption, shifts in the locus of economic power, globalisation and demographic change - each of which on their own would rank among the strongest economic forces the global economy has ever seen, are casting our world into a completely different reality."

Ms Livingstone said that the gap between the digital literacy of Australia's young people and that of competitor nations is increasing.
"If we want increased productivity and participation, we need urgently to embark on a ten year plan to close that gap. This will be essential to tackling structural youth unemployment," she said, calling for foundational STEM skills to be introduced into the primary and pre-primary curricula.
"By STEM skills, I mean maths and science, yes, but also computer coding, computational thinking, problem solving and design thinking."

International benchmarks
Research released by the Australian Industry Group shows a steady decline in educational standards, with Australia underperforming in maths and science in international benchmarks for primary and high school. Even more concerning is our ranking last on international comparison of university and business innovation partnerships from the OECD. Another paper from PWC reports that while 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations, including those in the creative industries and humanities, will require STEM related skills and knowledge, only 16% of high school graduates pursue degrees in STEM disciplines. In launching its STEM paper, PWC's CEO Luke Sayers Mr Sayers warned that today's skills shortage will worsen if business and industry continue to ignore the digital disruption that is transforming the global economy and making many of today's jobs redundant.

"Business is already struggling to find the right skilled talent for their workforce, and digital disruption is putting more jobs at risk," he said, reflecting on his personal interest in this issue from the perspective of a parent. "If we do not act quickly, our children will pay the price for our failure to adapt and respond."

He said Australia does not need more accountants and lawyers, professions among the 40% of jobs that are at risk of becoming automated in the near future, and remarked that PWC, a global consulting company, is in the process of reinventing itself in preparation for the day in which accounting will be automated. He also indicated that the company would be looking to hire more STEM graduates in future to ensure that people with strong critical thinking ability and problem solving skills can progress into senior roles.

Encouraging girls to study maths
Adding its voice to the debate is BHP Billiton, who has announced a $22 million partnership with the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute to encourage women and girls to study maths. CEO Andrew Mackenzie said the program aims to change the perception that girls are less suited to maths and other STEM subjects than their male colleagues.

"Australian industry knows that STEM professionals are vital to our future prosperity, national productivity and global competitiveness," he said.
With 123,000 employees worldwide, many of them STEM professionals, BHP Billiton is also taking steps to ensure a pipeline of young people who choose to study STEM subjects - including women.

What can teachers do?
So what is the role of education amidst all these calls to action? And how can teachers help develop appropriately skilled STEM students who will be able to meet the complex challenges of the future economy? These are questions for which there are no easy answers.

Supporting STEM teachers, particularly those who teach maths, has been identified as a key priority. The introduction of mathematics prerequisites for tertiary study is being hotly debated, and making the curricula more interesting are just a few of the responses. In terms of how teachers can get more youngsters engaged with STEM subjects and the exciting career paths that will align with the jobs of tomorrow, there are lots of ideas about how to make subjects more appealing and bring technology into the mix.

Presenters at a recent Sydney conference entitled Improving STEM Education & Skills urged schools to offer integrated learning around problem solving in addition to teaching subjects in silos. Projects that involve all disciplines, including computer studies, English, art and design, have been highly effective in engaging students to solve real world problems. Dedicated STEM days are used by many schools as a way to foster energy and excitement and bring teachers from different disciplines together to support and learn from each other. Realising that today's students are digital natives, many schools have found that projectsincorporating technology and design that also include computer coding spark interest. With a crowded curriculum and so many assessment tasks to complete, finding the time to deliver integrated STEM learning is not easy. But teachers are finding ways to get more creative in their approaches to STEM learning with great results.

Get creative with STEM teaching

As part of Sydney Science Festival in August to mark National Science Week, Inspiring Australia (NSW) has joined forces with Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and Google to present a half-day professional development workshop for teachers.ClassroomConfidence with STEMtargets teachers of years 5-8 to help them introduce classroom-ready creative science learning experiences. You'll build a game in scratch, play with code using Arduino and LEGO robotics, and discover creative approaches to teaching STEM subjects in the critical middle years.

Where: Powerhouse Museum
Date: Friday 21 August
Time:12.30 to 4pm
Cost: $65

More information is available at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences website.

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