‘Make STEM exciting – not just compulsory’

Schools around Australia recognise the importance that Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education has for the jobs of tomorrow, but they also recognise that this is an area that Australia is lagging behind in.

This fact has inspired some educators to think outside the box and develop ways that can help turn the tables, putting Australia’s students back on track in developing these vitally important skills.

One such educator is the new chair of Australian Science Innovation (ASI), Debra Smith, formerly the head of science at Centenary State High School, located in Brisbane’s west.

In 2010, Smith won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools – the culmination of 30 years of helping to redefine the way science is taught in Queensland and around Australia. 
Teachers must make STEM interesting
Drawing from her 30 years of teaching experience, Smith told The Educator that the trouble with teaching science is that for too long it was considered boring, with too much rote learning.

“For me, the most important things in the classroom in terms of teaching are engagement and relevance. Teachers have to make science interesting so kids want to learn it,” she said.

“Teachers also must also recognise the value of time and emphasis. In many schools, particularly in senior school curriculum, there is simply too much work to get through and there is very little time for fun.”

Smith said she was lucky to have a flexible curriculum at her school, which allowed her to spend time teaching students more about their particular areas of interest.

“One method I found to be very successful was using topical subject matter in lessons, such as an ad on television or an interesting news story,” she said.

“I made a point of asking students questions, rather than giving answers. Teaching kids to ask questions is equally important, because this is what science is all about –knowing the right questions to ask.

“The class should be hands-on, with students asking lots of questions, answering lots of questions, telling stories and talking about what they’ve seen on TV,” she said.

Through this teaching method, Smith saw the science scores of her senior students rank well above the state average.

Boosting STEM requires a change of focus

This week, Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, called for STEM subjects to be made compulsory in all Australian high schools, as more universities are requiring students to have completed these subjects before entering a course.
The PM’s calls come amid a broader national push for schools and private industry to work together in creating more STEM opportunities for students. However, Smith said she was unsure that existing initiatives aimed at boosting students’ STEM skillsets would work.
“My question would be: are we talking about engaging more students and producing a more scientifically literate population, and through that process enthusing students to go into STEM subjects? Or are we talking about doing one [NAPLAN] exam?”

“We’ll have succeeded if the students who previously weren’t interested in studying STEM subjects develop an interest in them and say ‘I think this is actually quite a bit of fun’.”

Smith said more consideration needs to be given to making STEM subjects relevant to individual students’ areas of interest, rather than simply being a subject “students have to do”.    

“Currently, there is nothing in the Australian science curriculum that caters for a slightly different science demographic,” she said.

“Schools teach chemistry, physics, biology, earth and environmental science – which are all seen as prerequisites for tertiary. We used to offer subjects that were about relevant science.”

One of these, Smith said, was marine and aquatic practices, which allowed kids to learn about skills such as navigation and engineering.

“These were the kids that were going to go out and get into a trade, and they were keen about all these things they were learning because they were interested in them,” she said.

“If we offer Year 11 and 12 students subjects that are engaging and relevant to them in their everyday lives, they are more inclined to want to do these subjects – rather than feeling like they’re forced to do them.”