Australia’s STEM education: student’s friend or government trend?

If you’re going to release a federal budget, you want to think of the children. Nowadays, it would seem you need to think of the computers, tablets, educational apps and gaming, programming software, robotic kits, drones, camps, workshops and lego. What I’m of course referring to here is Australia’s ever-increasing interest - and perhaps over-obsession - in STEM education. 

Earlier this month, Education Minister Rob Stokes declared the record $6 billion spent on school funding committed in an effort to recruit more quality teachers into NSW public schools. As part of this investment, 900 new full-time teachers will be deployed in schools across the state.  In particular, the government intends to recruit teachers with one or more qualified specialisations in physics, mathematics, technical and the applied sciences. 

Mark your calendars, it's STEMshog Day.

Anyone else feeling a sense of deje vu reading this? In fact, such a concerted attempt to raise Australia’s STEM outcomes has seemingly become an annual point of discussion, particularly where public education funding is concerned. But why STEM and when did this popular acronym leave the conversations of tech blogs and become the cornerstone of federal funding for the future of Australia’s curriculum? 

Well, if we want to really get fussy about its origin - yes, that’s the linguistic stem of STEM -  we have the U.S National Science Foundation to blame for that one… well, sort of. The organisation’s science administrators initially dreamed up the acronym ‘SMET' to refer to the career fields and curriculum that integrated the knowledge and skills of this area. As you probably guessed it, the organisation soon changed the acronym to what we all know now as STEM because SMET sounds like, well, SMET. 

But why then, ten or so years later down the track, do these four letters mean so much to the future direction of Australia’s curriculum? 

From a global perspective, disruptive innovations in employment and industry have been a persisting consequence of emerging technologies. Thus, many jobs that dominated Australian industry a decade or so in the past have fallen behind in the new competitive environment afforded by tech-assisted consumer convenience. It’s within this small period of time that companies such as Uber and Airbnb have become house-hold names, rapidly normalising the economy of live and in-demand efficiency in the ways we live day-to-day. 

If this is where the country’s workforce is heading, how then will this further push for STEM education help our kids in getting there? The younger generation are doing a great job of knowing the ins and outs of emerging technology anyhow, right? Only just this month, a toddler knew how to use FaceTime to call for help when her father was suffering from a stroke, so surely our kids are well-positioned for the technologically advanced future of work ahead? 

To put an ‘A’ for art in STE(A)M - that’s a blog post for another time - it’s appropriate here to share the words of seminal Cubist painter Pablo Picasso when he said; “Computers are useless, they can only give you answers”

Despite the media’s habit of focussing on the exciting prospects of the ’T’ in what STEM can mean for our kids’ curriculum, the more meaningful possibilities made available to students through this education are found at the intersection of these four areas. Together, science, technology, engineering and mathematics provide young people with the tools for practical inquiry, where small problems can be overcome through big ideas. 

Innovative things you can do without a computer, according to Picasso's '  Studio with Plaster Head' , 'Juan-les-Pins', summer 1925. Oil on canvas (Source: MoMA NYC)

Innovative things you can do without a computer, according to Picasso's 'Studio with Plaster Head', 'Juan-les-Pins', summer 1925. Oil on canvas (Source: MoMA NYC)

Take the somewhat unintentional discovery of Wi-Fi for instance. When Australian physicist John O’Sullivan was trying to explore the radio waves of deep space, the signals he sent out, although too small for his initial search for evaporated black holes, would instead serve as the basis for the technology that we now use to communicate with each other across the world. An important detail in this story however is that John discovered these waves in 1983, a decade prior to their current application when CSIRO tasked him to develop a wireless solution for computer communications. 

STEM doesn’t just mean you know how to program AI or write code for a ride-staring app, it means your mind is open to challenges and their subsequent, often unforeseen solutions.

At the end of the day, anything that can equip our future generation with the tools to expand their critical problem-solving capacity is an encouraging thing. The way in which our schooling system continues to implement and refine this education however, is still yet to be resolved. 

Outside of the classroom, we’re endeavouring to expose bright and absorbent young minds to the  exciting challenges and collaborative opportunities realised through STEM in practice. Just as John O’Sullivan could give us Wi-Fi when working alongside the CSIRO, the wonderful things kids achieve together when provided with the guidance of real-life engineers and educators is not only inspiring but reassuring for us to see. 

Rather than introducing more BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) classrooms into our schools and new technologies in the home, more essentially, we need to push for more initiatives that excite kids about STEM in collaboration. 

Thanks to creative young collaborators like those that we have witnessed taking part in MiniSparx, Australia’s future is looking like a smart and innovative one to come.