Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Australia’s High Schools Are Into STELR

By Doreen Thomas

The STELR program now reaches 500 schools, 50,000 students and 1500 teachers each year.

The campaign to get Australian secondary students interested in science and technology courses and careers has passed an extraordinary milestone with some 20% of Australian high schools now participating in the STELR program driven by the Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE).

The STELR (Science and Technology Education Leveraging Relevance) Program is aimed at science and maths students in years 6–10. It is now running in more than 500 schools in all states and territories, reaching an estimated 50,000 secondary students and more than 1500 teachers each year.

This is a remarkable achievement, given STELR started only 9 years ago as an ATSE response to the declining participation in STEM subjects in schools and tertiary institutions With support from state governments, it was trialled in 30 schools in 2009. Federal government funding enabled it to spread to more than 180 schools in 2010.

The first STELR offering was a renewable energy module, tapping into the high level of concern students have about global warming and climate change. A sustainable housing module is now available and further modules are in development: Carbon Dioxide – Friend or Foe; Water for the 21st Century; Future Health; Car Safety; and Construction Using Computer Modelling.

STELR has evolved to reflect the new Australian science curriculum, and the STELR modules are designed to be taught within the curriculum, making them available to all students in the appropriate year levels of each participating school.

STELR exemplifies an inquiry-based teaching approach and the development of a coherent learning program in which various content strands are interwoven. Modules incorporate contemporary teaching and learning practices, in particular an inquiry-based learning approach that engages and challenges students and teachers.

Teachers are supported through an initial professional development program and follow-up assistance and their evaluations of the program show that it has a positive effect on students’ participation and engagement in learning science and on their perception of the relevance of science in their lives.

The primary aim of STELR is to address the problem of low participation rates in Australia in science and maths subjects at the upper secondary school level by relating these subjects to highly relevant issues affecting all students. One major reason for these low participation rates is that students do not perceive and appreciate the relevance of science in their lives, despite being surrounded by science and technology.

STELR’s supporting aims are to:

  • improve the level of science literacy and understanding in the community;
  • raise awareness of opportunities in technology-related careers;
  • repare students to engage with science ideas and be knowledgeable about how science and scientists work;
  • increase the number of students choosing science and engineering careers to address the shortage of science and engineering graduates; and
  • improve the quality of science classroom teaching practice.

Its value has been recognised overseas, and it is now being used in New Zealand and in South-East Asia.

Two recent developments are helping STELR to boost its impact. The Inspiring Science & Mathematics Education project involves the development of at least five multidisciplinary classroom modules that use cutting-edge science and engineering contexts and the latest educational theory from partner universities and other research institutions to excite and engage students. PwC has judged STELR one of the best STEM initiatives in Australia and included it among 20 organisations it is supporting through an intense acceleration process to achieve rapid and effective scale through its PwC 21st Century Minds Accelerator Program.

With this sort of support, STELR is destined to continue to change student views of the value of science and technology in our lives.

Prof Doreen Thomas FTSE is Head of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Melbourne, has a national teaching award for her contribution to engineering education and mentorship and is a passionate ambassador for women in science and engineering. She Chairs ATSE’s Education Forum.