Preparing students for a STEM-intensive future, today

How did you learn science and maths — rote learning facts and theorems? As innovation escalates, our education system must adapt to keep up with advancing technologies and ideas.

Illustration by Sarah Nagorcka

Illustration by Sarah Nagorcka

Science teaching has come a long way in the last fifty years, i.e. since our parent’s school experience. We’ve well and truly moved on from rote learning and recitation of facts, with a greater focus on holistic understanding of science and mathematics in the classroom. As the children of today are going to be placed in an increasingly technological and scientific world, is the current curriculum adequately preparing them with the tools to engage with this future, meaningfully?

The bulk of schools in Australia follow the national standards handed down by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), which has some broad requirements for science and mathematics knowledge. During primary school years, there is an equal focus on identifying questions that can be identified, investigating them, and developing explanations from the observations and data recorded. The plan is to use science to focus on inquiry-based teaching and learning, to provide a broad base of skills for the more curriculum-heavy secondary years. 

This kind of approach lines up well with constructionist learning, often described as learning-by-playing or learning-by-making. Constructionist learning suggests that there are many solutions to a problem, and students ought to be coached through solving those problems rather than lectured on one 'correct' method. Rather than having the laws of physics described to you, the class would work together to design a car, or an aeroplane, or a submarine.

 
Without adequate and timely education in STEM, we face a future with an underskilled workforce in an increasingly technological age. clement127/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Without adequate and timely education in STEM, we face a future with an underskilled workforce in an increasingly technological age. clement127/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

 

Montessori schools are a more extreme example of constructionist learning than that observed in mainstream schools. Children are encouraged to work with materials and direct their own learning, with emphasis placed on developing self-confidence, self-discipline, and respect. There have been conflicting studies of the beneficial academic effect Montessori schools claim to have. Students  who attended a Montessori school are academically indistinguishable from their traditionally schooled peers, although other studies suggest that while this is true for English and the social sciences, American students who attended Montessori schools from preschool to the 5th grade were notably better at high school standardised tests in science and mathematics.

While the inquiry and problem solving encouraged by constructionist learning underlies much of scientific research and endeavour, it has limitations. In order to solve more complex problems, a greater degree of static knowledge is required. This is provided by instruction-based learning more like the learning experienced at high school; one-way dialogue from teacher to students, individual work dominating the classroom environment with a focus on learning information rather than solving problems.  It can seem dull but it provides a firm base for the fun problem solving later on.

Michaela Epstein, a Teaching and Learning Coach and Leading Teacher at Hume Central Secondary College, describes the variety of teaching methods as “not mutually exclusive areas… in any learning environment it shouldn’t be just explicit teaching and shouldn’t be just inquiry.” Both the static retention and understanding of facts and problem solving are encouraged by ACARA’s national standards, and in an ideal world they would be integrated seamlessly throughout one’s education. However, this doesn’t always go as planned. Educational inequality can mean that poorer schools don’t have the resources or the time to teach science and mathematics in an engaging and fun manner. This often results in children falling behind or missing out on the joys that hands-on scientific inquiry can provide.

 
Fantastical large-scale science shows like this demonstration of a Tesla coil and Faraday cage are wonderful experiences — for those who live in or can easily travel to the major cities. Such educational inequality is being reduced by regional travelling science vans and initiatives like Lab in a Box. tombarta/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fantastical large-scale science shows like this demonstration of a Tesla coil and Faraday cage are wonderful experiences — for those who live in or can easily travel to the major cities. Such educational inequality is being reduced by regional travelling science vans and initiatives like Lab in a Box. tombarta/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

While a lot of scientists are enthusiastic to talk about their work to children – and some even say so on their websites – the unfortunate clustering of universities in Australia means that the students who miss out are often in rural areas and therefore more likely to be attending poorer schools. This exacerbates the educational inequality, but there are a range of services that can help.

The Life Education Van is one of these services, and is an institution of the educational systems. They’ve been operating for over 35 years in Australia, and the day the Life Education Van came to your school was probably the best day of your year. The focus on personal health includes education about the human body, anatomy and physiology, and providing helpful mnemonics such as referring to arteries as “air-trees” (because they carry oxygen around your body!).

Different mobile science classrooms are being introduced across the country, with Re-Engineering Australia developing a fleet of five vans. Lab in a Box in New Zealand is about to start its inaugural schools tour, aimed at Year 4 to 8 students. The founder and driving force behind Lab in a Box, Associate Professor Peter Dearden, describes the endeavor:

“Lab in a Box is for rural communities that aren’t readily exposed to science or scientists, but who are custodians of our land and water. We can work with farmers, local businesses, students and teachers to show them how much fun it is to discover, detail, describe, develop and sometimes destroy things. Hands-on practical work can inspire people in a way that a theoretical explanation just can’t."

 
Hands-on interaction with physical representations of complex or abstract ideas can boost student confidence, engagement and interest in STEM learning areas. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Hands-on interaction with physical representations of complex or abstract ideas can boost student confidence, engagement and interest in STEM learning areas. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

A travelling science classroom can provide temporary benefit and allow children to see the wonder that exists in everyday happenings through STEM, but longer-term solutions are needed. A greater focus in teacher training on STEM skills and well-taught refresher courses will also help build confidence and understanding of complex topics that change at the speed of discovery. Development of the national standards by ACARA highlight this focus on STEM and inquiry-based learning for younger students, as all teacher training in Australia is done in reference to the national curriculum.

Another solution is to tempt a greater number of qualified scientists and mathematicians into teaching. There are a few efforts working towards this; Teach for Australia (TFA) works to address educational inequality, and they have a particular focus on applicants with maths and science backgrounds. Similar organisations exist internationally, and many have a preference for STEM graduates. 

Michaela Epstein is a Teach For Australia (TFA) alumnus who became aware of the importance of education in social change during the course of her undergraduate degree in politics and psychology. She says that is what pointed her towards TFA. She describes it as a “theme developing through [her] university time”, and prior to her current role in Hume Central worked with a non-profit organisation in Mildura that focussed on academic enrichment in Indigenous students.

Epstein’s enthusiasm for mathematics and education as a whole is infectious, and this is characteristic of alumni from the Teach For Australia program. By taking brilliant students with an undergraduate or graduate degree in STEM, TFA manages to put passionate, knowledgeable, and incredibly driven STEM-skilled individuals in some of the most underprivileged schools in Australia. The benefit is not only to students but also colleagues, as TFA alumni often co-ordinate learning areas and perform roles as leading teachers that help inform school-wide programs.

Not every scientist will want to go into a classroom. Not every future teacher wants to do a full science or mathematics degree. But by educating today’s generation of students about science, technology, engineering and mathematics in fun and engaging ways, in accordance with ACARA’s guidelines, students will be provided with the tools required to explore and understand an increasingly STEM-intensive world. The key to doing this, as with all things, seems to be moderation; a compromise between the constructionist and instructionist learning theories. Both the Australian government and organisations like Teach For Australia recognise this, which provides a lot of hope for the next generation of STEM innovators and consumers.