School’s STEM unit crafts ‘flexible minds’

School’s STEM unit crafts ‘flexible minds’
According to a recent report by Australia’s Chief Scientist, women comprise just 16% of the total STEM workforce, a glaring statistic that has resulted in an increased focus to improve gender parity from leaders and organisations across society.

One school taking this disparity seriously is St Margaret’s Anglican Girls School, located in Queensland.

To drive improved STEM outcomes and better prepare its girls for the future of work, the school recently adopted what it calls a “differentiated approach” to its STEM curriculum.

At the core of this approach is a dedicated, stand-alone STEM subject that offers equal emphasis on each of its four components: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

But it gets much more exciting than this.

Since the inception of this idea, the school’s Year 9 girls have worked on creating advanced prosthetics using 3D printers and other advanced technology being used in booming industries like medical science and robotics.

Chris Farrelly, the school’s manager of STEM Enrichment Programs, said the motivating factor behind the creation of the standalone STEM subject was to give the school the ability to have “a context-driven” unit.

“This unit develops in its own natural sequence, organically, without being broken up across different subject classes or silos,” Farrelly told The Educator.

“We can exploit novel contexts that students find truly engaging – the development of prosthetic limbs, for example, without these becoming disjointed across different classes.”
Farrelly added that this means Maths and Technology “are taught and applied exactly when they are needed”.

“The STEM subject doesn’t become Science by default – reflection and re-design are constant activities, and students push their own boundaries as they try to manipulate technology to perform as they have imagined it should,” he explained.

“As a standalone STEM subject, we draw from curriculum areas and year levels as needed – not in lockstep with a subject’s work program.”

A report released yesterday, titled: Girls’ Future – Our Future, has recommended a range of initiatives and programs to encourage girls’ participation in STEM subjects at school.

The report, which was funded by the Invergowrie Foundation and completed by researchers at the University of Melbourne and Deakin University, stressed the importance of providing genuine opportunities for girls to engage with STEM professionals through project work, mentoring or industry placement.

“If they are able to interact with and relate to people already in the field, they are able to see their own career possibilities,” one of the report’s authors, Associate Professor Linda Hobbs from Deakin University, said.

The report also recommends focusing on early years and primary education to address unconscious biases and teachers’ ability to teach STEM for all students and quality career advice on the diversity of STEM-based career possibilities.

According to Farrelly, one important skill for students to be learning in order to prepare them for the future world is about undertaking a “cycle of reflection and modification” when attempting to complete a task. 

“It’s important for students to develop the skill to attempt to complete a task, even when they can't see the entire solution – and then to be able to modify their ideas as they learn more about the task/problem,” Farrelly said.

“The cycle of reflection and modification to a plan should be accepted, and not seen as some level of failure.”

Farrelly said that in addition, school leavers need the ability to “forage” amongst their different knowledge areas to frame possible solutions to new and novel problems.

“The flexible mind will be the most valuable of resources in the workplace,” he said.

“Mundane problem solving will increasingly be accomplished through algorithms – known solution paths – making those capable of flexible thinking, and those able to combine skills and knowledge from different areas invaluable for solving problems in the workplace.”

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