'A better than world class STEM curriculum'

While research shows that fewer students are pursuing the careers in STEM, some educators are turning the tables by breaking down the stigmas and pitfalls that often prevent young people from taking the first step into this exciting field.

One school that has been doing a particularly good job of this is Melville Senior High School, which was recently named a finalist for Best STEM Program ahead of the Australian Education Awards 2020.

Every year, the majority of Melville SHS graduates go onto study science, maths, engineering or ICT related courses at university, helping to drive a resurgence in a sector that has been dubbed a “critical investment for the 21st Century economy” by Australia’s Chief Scientist.

Below, The Educator speaks to the school’s principal, Phillip White, about his school’s ‘organic’ approach to STEM, how the school community have become ‘power users’ of technology and how the ‘new normal’ has allowed the school to improve on the way it delivers effective STEM education.

TE: It’s certainly been an extraordinary and disruptive year for education. Can you tell us what has 2020 been like for Melville SHS’s teaching and learning community?

PW: The Melville community of students, parents and staff were very well placed to manage what has been and still is an extra-ordinary period in world events. We are a very well-connected school and utilise technology as a matter of course in our communication with our staff, parents and students. This has made it much easier to provide the clear messaging that is so important in managing what has been a stressful and demanding time. Luckily, WA has been less affected than other states and schools have not been closed. There was a period or about three weeks when school attendance was optional and our capacity to provide on-line work made this easier to deal with. I think the biggest impact on us has been the mental health of students and indeed staff. We are all confronted with the grim images from around the world that are alarming. But we have a very strong student services team and I believe the school provides a very safe, friendly and caring learning environment, evidenced by our normal attendance rates and good semester 1 results. This said, 2020 has been and remains a very disrupted year for our community but our capacity to communicate instantly with all of our staff, parents and students has made leading and managing easier.

TE: With the pandemic having put technology firmly in the spotlight, what has COVID-19 meant for the provision of STEM education at Melville SHS?

PW: Not surprisingly for a STEM of the Year school, staff, students and indeed parents at Melville are what I would consider ‘power users’ of technology. We have been a BYOD school since 2012 with every student required to bring an iPad or equivalent to every lesson. While the device is very much treated as a tool to enhance learning the fact that my school community are well versed in the use of Office 360, OnNote, Teams, WebEx and more recently Zoom etc has made our capacity to deliver on-line or remote learning much easier than it otherwise would have been. It is my view that this ‘routine’ or ‘normalised’ use of technology make the delivery of an integrated whole school STEM approach much easier for staff who would not normally seem themselves as STEM teachers. Thus my English and HASS staff (for example) who might now use TEAMs as part of their lesson delivery or to enhance small group research, planning and presentations, or Minecraft to support the animated retelling of fairy stories, are seeing that STEM is indeed part of providing educational excellence at Melville SHS. It is this everyday ‘organic’ use of a STEM approach to learning and teaching at Melville that make us such an effective future focused school. 

TE: Are there any ways in which the ‘new normal’ has allowed Melville SHS to improve or build on the way it delivers effective STEM education? If so, what are they?

PW: Melville SHS has never felt the need to “teach” STEM as such. As a school community we have embraced the use of technology for many years now. While all students are provided with explicit instruction on the use of the numerous software applications that empower them to become better learners, there is no such subject as STEM at Melville SHS. Rather as a community of learners Melville parents and students value maths, science and embrace the day-to-day use of technology. Thus, every student at Melville studies maths and science until Year 10 and many then continued with ATAR Physics, Chemistry, Specialist Maths and of course a range of ICT type subjects. We have a specialist aviation program (with an obvious focus on maths, science, technology and engineering) as well as a specialist Graphic Design and Media program. Each of these programs attract highly capable students who complement our existing Gifted and Talented program. The students and their parents expect Melville to have a strong STEM focus – and we do. Every year the majority of our graduates go onto study science, maths, engineering or ICT related courses at university. All this said, out student of course get multiple opportunities to learn and practice coding, engage with robotics, fly drones, enter and win international maths and science competitions etc. Has any of this changed in the ‘new normal’ of COVID-19? The simple answer is no. While our STEM focus has served us well with remote delivery, we haven’t really needed to adjust how our programs are delivered – meaning we continue to provide a better than world class science, maths and technology focused curriculum.

TE: Given the scale and scope of transformation that the education sector has undergone in recent times, what kind of year do you expect 2021 to be for Melville SHS?

PW: Presuming WA and Australia is able to remain largely isolated from the immediate effects of COVID-19, I don’t really expect 2021 to be particularly different to 2020 or indeed 2019. As I have said to my community on numerous occasions – Melville is an island of safety and care and has been largely able to deliver a ‘business as usual’ learning and teaching program that, as it always has done, focuses on the delivery of excellence while providing all of our students the opportunity to achieve success in the academic, sporting, cultural and citizenship domains. All this said, it will be nice when a STEM graduate somewhere (perhaps one of our own!) working in the area of bio-medical research develops the vaccine that will enable our community to relax a little and to allow the world to return to normal. By the way – one of the many lessons learned from the COVID-19 experience is that our society isn’t ready yet for widespread home or remote learning. I know that there is now a much greater acceptance of the central, indeed critical, role that teachers and schools play in educating the ‘whole child’ than there perhaps was nine months ago. Face-to-face teaching may be seen as ‘so nineteenth century’ by futurists but COVID has shown that we don’t have an easy replacement for it yet!