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Serendipity, Your Number Is Up

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One-third of Australian children do not meet the international minimum numeracy benchmark.

By Roslyn Prinsley

Science, technology, engineering and maths skills are needed to build the nation, but student and teacher numbers are in decline.

Our quality of life is increasingly dependent on generating knowledge and applying it. Only nations able to do this will succeed in an intensely competitive global economy.

Science and maths foster critical thinking, reasoning and creativity – skills important for people to take advantage of opportunity – and confidence to face challenges and manage risk.

Literacy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is vital for our society, yet there is strong evidence that the Australian education system is not delivering enough STEM-qualified people to take up science and technology-based careers or to cope with modern life. We cannot presume we will have enough citizens educated in STEM.

Our future starts today. What we teach now provides the skills for the Australia of tomorrow. We need to plan to get this right. It is too important to rely on chance.

I joined the office of the Chief Scientist in February as the National Adviser, Mathematics and Science Education and Industry. My role is to bring focus to ensuring the value of STEM to Australia.

I am actively working in partnership with stakeholders in the education, industry, academia and government sectors to develop collaborative strategies to build a broader science, research and technology base in the workforce and community. I am commissioning research to fill significant gaps in our understanding of the place of STEM skills in industry and society.

Two reports by the office of the Chief Scientist –

Mathematics, Engineering and Science in the National Interest and The Health of Australian Science – indicate issues at the start of the supply line. The number of young people studying science and mathematics at school is in persistent decline. Australia also has a shortage of maths and science teachers, and their average age is 47 years – with many nearing retirement.

Australia aspires to be in the top five nations in science and maths, but school student scores are falling in standard international maths and science tests. The latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study showed that Australia is a top 20 rather than a top five performer. One-third of Australian children do not meet the international minimum numeracy benchmark, compromising their ability to cope with modern everyday life.

I am liaising with national STEM teacher professional associations to support and strengthen the profession.

Getting the right number of people with the right skills in the right place at the right time cannot be left to serendipity. Achieving this outcome requires careful planning, effort and vigilance.

High-growth industries based upon advanced technologies, such as software development and intellectual property, require sophisticated STEM knowledge. Yet all sectors covet these skills.

The recent survey of the STEM skills of members of the Australian Industry Group found that 41% of employers had difficulty recruiting STEM-skilled technicians, and 26% had difficulty recruiting STEM-skilled professionals and managers.

Of equal concern, a 2011–12 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that more than half of adult Australians lack the minimum level of numeracy skills required to meet the complex demands of everyday life and to work in the knowledge-based economy.

I am engaging with industry to plan and build the necessary STEM skills in the workforce. There is much to do. We need the education system, industry, academia and government to work together to build Australia’s science, research and technology base.

Roslyn Prinsley is National Adviser, Mathematics and Science Education and Industry for the Office of the Chief Scientist for Australia.