Why is STEM education important?

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) covers a wide range of skills and knowledge which are increasing in demand in our changing world and knowledge based economy (Department of Education and Training [DET], 2016).

STEM is important in terms of personal skills gained.  The Office of the Chief Scientist (2016) reported that STEM graduates with a graduate degree have “higher order skills in research, logical thinking and quantitative analysis” as well qualities of creativity, open mindedness, independence and objectivity.

Contrary to this viewpoint Kramar reports the challenges of STEM graduates actually having poor communication and critical thinking skills.  This being due to learning STEM subjects like science and maths by rote learning and memorisation (Kramer, Tallant, Goldberger & Lund, 2014, pp. 4).

The definitions of ‘STEM skills’ might be the problem.  While graduates do need ‘technical’ skills taught specifically for occupations, skills also required in a workplace are higher order cognitive skills i.e. critical thinking and socioemotional skills like resilience, curiosity and empathy (Siekmann, 2016, pp. 5).  Such skills are hard to measure and monitor but an inspirational STEM education will provide frameworks for how new problems can be tackled.

STEM is important for our economy and workforce with STEM industries being seen as crucial for national economic growth and competitiveness.   Since Australia’s economy is shifting away from mining and resources, we need to be focussed on emerging technologies.    Currently 14% of Australian economic activity is directly underpinned by advanced sciences and the flow on effects from this are worth $330 billion per year (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2016).

According to ‘Australia Futures’ report (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2014, p. 16) STEM creates innovation opportunities but unfortunately businesses fail to capitalise on them.  The total number of technology start-ups in Australia is very low in a global context.

Given that high impact entrepreneurship drives economic growth and employment rates, our education, research and business sectors must be better connected.  Australian businesses are unwilling to take risks.  When research sectors and businesses are connected, risks are spread.  Collaboration between STEM businesses and research organisations will triple the likelihood of business productivity growth (pp. 16). 

With a future knowledge-based economy Australian businesses and the growth force will rely on workers with an understanding of STEM disciplines (Kramer et al, 2014).  In terms of Australia’s current workforce underemployment of STEM qualified people is lower than the unemployment of those with Non-STEM qualifications – 3.7% compared to 4.1%.   In terms of wage bracket people with STEM qualifications their incomes are in the highest bracket compared to NON-STEM. (Figure 3.14). Office of the Chief Scientist (2016).

What goes hand in hand with improving innovation and knowledge of emerging technologies is a foundation of education and skills in STEM literacy (Office of the Chief Scientist, Australia’s Future, 2014 pg. 21).

Education policy across the world has tended to assume that many students aren’t entering STEM related fields because there is lack of ‘aspiration’ (Department of Education and Professional Studies [DEPS], 2013).  This along with Australia dropping rank in developing countries, science and maths results has led to much pressure being put on educators to improve student ability, engagement and participation in STEM (Marginson, S., Tytler, R., Freeman, B., and Roberts, K., 2013).

In Australia it has been found that it is not a lack of aspiration but rather a lack of understanding of relevance, particularly maths (Education Council, 2015, p. 8).  In the UK and Australia, students are not too sure where science can lead, generally thinking you can either get a job as a scientist, science teacher or medical practitioner and not much else.

The focus of STEM in curriculum from early years to middle years of secondary school would encourage engagement in maths and science.  Career education that is constantly ‘drip fed’ into a student’s education can improve understanding of career choices (DEPS, 2013).

Education of STEM teachers is paramount to teaching quality effective impacts on students learning.   Upskilling preservice teachers, extending teaching degrees to postgraduate qualifications  and attracting STEM graduates into teaching are all valid solutions  (Blackley S., Howell J., A Stem Narrative: 15 Years in the Making).  Changing the perception of many students that you have to be ‘brainy’ to do science is also important.

Educational inequality is another area of concern in the area of STEM education.  Females, students with lower socio economic status, students from rural locations and indigenous backgrounds are unrepresented in STEM fields worldwide. These ‘Untapped Pools of Talent’… ‘impedes innovation and economic advance’ so therefore large groups of talent are underutilised.  Just looking at data on females in Australia’s STEM graduate workforce, less than one third (27%) were females. Of those 27% females there are some industries that employ a higher percentage of females than others (Figure 4.10). Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 9.21.16 am.png

There are more females employed in Education & Training, and Health Care & Social Assistance than any other fields. Woman are paid less in full time STEM roles as depicted in figure 4.21 (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2016).

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 9.10.10 am

At school level a higher percentage of girls ‘like’ science more than boys, but still don’t pursue careers (DEPS, 2013) in these areas and are statistically more likely to drop mathematics after year ten.  There are many reasons for the under-representation of woman stereotypes on who should be in STEM roles, lack of female mentors to guide women in their careers, motherhood and overall ignorance of STEM careers are a few (Marginson et al, pp. 138).