A new report from the Australian Industry Group (Ai Group) has revealed STEM participation rates among secondary school students is declining.
The Strengthening School – Industry Stem Skills Partnerships report stated the level of maths and science understanding in schools has deteriorated to a “dangerous level,” with rates of student participation having fallen by 34% over the past 18 years.
The number of high school students participating in mathematics has also declined.
The report stated that one of the most significant obstacles to the progression of teaching STEM is the misunderstanding of what it entails and requires of students.
According to the Ai Group, some teachers see the acronym ‘STEM’ as a descriptor of jobs, rather than a set of skills to encourage students to learn. There is also confusion regarding the statement 75% of the fastest growing jobs will require STEM skills, often being interpreted as 75% of all jobs will require high levels of maths and science.
Previous research from the Ai Group has already noted a significant skills shortage and recruitment difficulties for certain STEM-related occupations, the most prominent being tech and trade workers, managers and professionals.
However, the report also mentioned STEM skills extend beyond the workplace.
“[They should be used] not only for the 21st century workplace, but for everyday life in the increasingly complex technologically driven world,” said the report, which went on to say the advancement of STEM skills is of major importance to the Australian workforce and economy.
Despite government attempts to increase student participation in STEM over the last decade, the proportion of students continuing STEM-related studies in year 11 and 12 has plateaued at 10% or less.
These concerns are what prompted Ai Group to kickstart the Strengthening School-Industry STEM Skills Partnership Project.
The project outlines several key objectives, one of which is encouraging students to consider STEM careers earlier in their schooling lives, and to amend the curriculum to put more focus on teaching maths and engineering.
The primary objectives of the project are to strengthen the ties between industry and school systems to increase student participation in STEM-related disciplines in conjunction with industry, improve students’ and teachers’ understanding of STEM and its demand in the workplace, and subsequently encourage students to undertake further study or pursue a career in STEM.
The project also focuses on bringing together companies which currently support or are interested in supporting STEM activity in schools.
Integration of STEM
One of the greatest difficulties the report found was the integration of STEM within the school curriculum and constraints of school timetables, despite support from schools themselves.
“Realistically…the school curriculum is still largely structured to deliver education in single subject areas and this was constantly raised by teachers as a barrier,” said the report.
The report stated that despite a school desire to provide integrated STEM, it is dependent on various factors, not least being the capacity and desire for teachers in STEM disciplines to collaborate.
“The autonomous nature of schools still determines what gets supported and prioritised. Conflicting priorities and performance measures may challenge some of the objectives in the STEM arena,” said the report.
The report suggested three primary recommendations:
- Teacher professional development, focusing on education systems to provide professional development for maths and digital technology teachers on integrating these and other subjects into a STEM-based curriculum;
- Resources for schools to be able to engage with industry partners for STEM skill development as well as other relevant organisations;
- Resources for industry, developed for use by employers to better form partnerships with schools to implement STEM strategies, establishing a forum to “facilitate” dialogue between industry and schools.