30/03/2021 - 08:00

STEM learning a complex study

30/03/2021 - 08:00

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What role will science, technology and mathematics play in setting kids up for the future of work?

STEM learning a complex study
TENURED: Hans Geers has been principal of Brookman Primary School since 2008.

Brookman Primary School has become one of Western Australia’s pre-eminent institutions for STEM education during the past two years.

An independent school located in the suburb of Langford, about 15 kilometres south-east of Perth, Brookman Primary has few of the facilities of its private counterparts, which can afford to build facilities and run complex programs to teach the hard sciences.

Still, after committing to an integrated approach to learning about a decade ago, the school has earned its stripes on the matter, coming away with the Governor’s STEM award in 2019 and 2020.

It became the first school inducted into the state’s STEM awards hall of fame this past November, a reflection of the school’s improved academic outcomes and culture during the 2010s.

Brookman Primary’s approach, which integrates subjects as diverse as history and the arts with mathematics and science, is employed across cohorts.

Kindergartners are encouraged to be creative when playing with building blocks, while year six students are guided through months-long projects examining how Australia can best achieve carbon neutrality.

Traditional assessments are kept to a minimum across all subjects, with students encouraged to take risks, build resilience and develop a broad skillset rather than focus on one or two subjects they are good at.

“Our philosophy is a whole-of- school approach,” Tania Rennie, Brookman Primary School’s senior school deputy principal, said.

“It’s hands on and it’s integrated.

“The important part for us is that it’s about the teacher being a facilitator, not necessarily a dictator telling children what to do, but helping them solve problems.

“When we walk through classrooms, it’s very much student led.”

Brookman Primary School is not alone in its commitment to STEM.

Schools from across WA have embraced the hard sciences as a core competency, with schools as diverse as Holy Cross College in Perth’s largely exurban, north- easterly corner, to Chrysalis Montessori School in the city’s inner suburbs, offering a variety of specialist science and engineering programs.

These programs in part originate from the belief that a STEM education leads to better job opportunities, a claim championed by the federal government in recent years.

Dan Tehan, whose tenure with the education portfolio ended in December, spent much of 2020 celebrating the federal government’s various efforts to herd high school graduates into university STEM courses through programs such as a $900 million industry linkage fund, and heavily discounted science, engineering and maths courses.

Those tertiary reforms, which were signed into law in November, were variously criticised in committee submissions as having little impact on demand and leading to the ironic consequence of incentivising humanities degrees.

Nevertheless, the reality is that students studying law, economics and management degrees will be asked to pay more, while those studying medicine, dentistry and veterinary sciences – deemed national priorities – will rack up a relatively smaller HECS bill at the end of their studies.

WA’s political leaders have sounded a similar note, with STEM taking centre stage at the upcoming state election given the mining and property industries are adjacent to economic activity and job creation.

For one, Premier Mark McGowan has pledged to spend $30 million on TAFE courses (if re- elected) with a focus on creating thousands of additional places in electrical, construction and aero-manufacturing industries by the middle of the decade.

Not to be outdone, the state opposition’s mammoth $200 million in apprentice and trainee hiring credits, most of which will benefit students who study for jobs that require mathematical and technological skills, proves the bipartisan consensus on the subject locally.

Australia’s not isolated in its focus, though, and this emphasis on STEM has a deep history tied to economic and geopolitical dominance.

“The mantra of studying STEM is international,” Vaille Dawson, professor of science education at the University of Western Australia, told Business News.

“The first wave was in the 1960s after Russia ended up launching a rocket before the US.

“Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there was a huge push for science and maths education;

at the time, the consensus was that was what contributed to a country’s economic prosperity and productivity.

“The latest wave started about a decade ago, when there were various reports that indicated this would solve Australia’s productivity, post-mining, linked to our economic sustainability.”

Its intertwining with mining is partially why WA has focused so intently on promoting STEM education. 

accounting for roughly 10 per cent of the state’s jobs overall.

But are STEM graduates more employable than their counterparts?

Annual survey data from the Department of Education found 69 per cent of Australians with undergraduate degrees were in full-time employment as of 2020.

Those who held engineering, pharmaceutical or medical degrees were among those who exceeded the average, employed at a rate of 83, 96 and 87 per cent, respectively.

Realistically, however, that may reflect the vocational nature of jobs that arise from those degrees rather than the employment opportunities that come with holding a STEM degree.

For instance, those with education, law and management degrees proved almost as employable, with undergraduates from those courses finding work at a respective rate of 80, 76 and 74 per cent.

Full-time employment was just 59 per cent for those with a science or mathematics degree, far below the national average and on par with prospects faced by those with a humanities degree.

Across all study areas, science and mathematics graduates found jobs at a similar rate to humanities graduates in the three years after graduating, with about 87 per cent having found a job in both disciplines.

More than 130,000 people are directly employed in mining, per the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety, accounting for roughly 10 per cent of the state’s jobs overall.

But are STEM graduates more employable than their counterparts?

Annual survey data from the Department of Education found 69 per cent of Australians with undergraduate degrees were in full-time employment as of 2020.

Those who held engineering, pharmaceutical or medical degrees were among those who exceeded the average, employed at a rate of 83, 96 and 87 per cent, respectively.

Realistically, however, that may reflect the vocational nature of jobs that arise from those degrees rather than the employment opportunities that come with holding a STEM degree.

For instance, those with education, law and management degrees proved almost as employable, with undergraduates from those courses finding work at a respective rate of 80, 76 and 74 per cent.

Full-time employment was just 59 per cent for those with a science or mathematics degree, far below the national average and on par with prospects faced by those with a humanities degree.

Across all study areas, science and mathematics graduates found jobs at a similar rate to humanities graduates in the three years after graduating, with about 87 per cent having found a job in both disciplines.

accounting for roughly 10 per cent of the state’s jobs overall.

By contrast, 90 per cent of all graduates were employed across that period, with teaching, business and social work graduates among the highest performers, alongside engineering graduates.

Apart from those who hold health or associated degrees, the employment trajectory across all degrees is relatively similar, with long-term employment prospects more pronounced across those with more vocational opportunities.

Further complicating matters are earnings, which, outside of dentistry, aren’t too dissimilar no matter the discipline.

Engineering graduates had median salaries of $70,000 per annum as of 2020, an $8,000 advantage over humanities students.

Incomes for science and mathematics graduates were just $64,000, though, barely better than most other industries and less than law, teaching and psychology graduates.

And while pharmaceutical graduates appear destined to find a job almost immediately after graduating, their median income is just $49,000 per annum, below even that of creative arts graduates.

“When we talk about STEM, we’ve got to realise it covers everything from astrophysics to pure mathematics and computer sciences,” Professor Dawson said.

“It’s complex, because sometimes the skills an employer is looking for isn’t the degree.

“They want good English language skills, interpersonal skills, they want graduates to work as part of the team.

Sometimes they find humanities students have those skills better than others.”

If a STEM degree isn’t necessarily a ticket to a good job, what can be gained from being proficient in those subjects?

Professor Dawson points to the transferrable nature of skills that students develop over the course of their primary, secondary and tertiary educations as part of the appeal for employers.

Just as some businesses may be drawn to the creativity and critical thinking skills attached to a graduate with a humanities degree, others may find value in someone whose familiarity with emerging technologies and scientific concepts can be applied across industries.

The ability to balance those concepts is important to Brookman Primary School’s way of teaching STEM, which focus on how all subjects integrate, regardless of the discipline, rather than simply prioritising science lessons.

And while creativity is paramount, school principal Hans Geers advises that Brookman Primary still assesses core competencies with tests and assignments.

Underpinning these lessons are meaningful examples of how science, engineering and mathematics can be applied later in life.

Mr Geers said it was probably too early to assess how these lessons had changed student outcomes in the long term, but pointed to a clear change in attitudes and ambitions.

He notes a friendlier atmosphere spurred on by a cultural shift that has come alongside this new approach to teaching.

Now, students who once dreamed of joining the police force, becoming a fireman, hairdresser or football player, have shifted their ambitions towards engineering and the environmental sciences in hopes of solving global, existential crises.

It’s a remarkable shift for this small independent school to go through over the past decade.

“When I got to the school, a kid would walk past and I would say, ‘G’day, how are you?’, and I’d get a grunt,” Mr Geers said.

“Now, I’ll get a ‘Good thanks, Mr Geers; how was your weekend?’

“It’s those peripheral things that haven’t happened overnight and haven’t happened just because of STEM … but that was the foundation.

“The STEM has taken these kids to a whole new world and I haven’t been to a class where the students aren’t engaged; they’re just into it.”

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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