Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

No More Studies: It’s Time for STEM Action

By Mike Miller

The STEM situation is desperate and needs to be addressed as a high priority.

Skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) areas, or the lack of them, have become a key problem preoccupying policy-makers in Australia and many other countries. STEM-based jobs are projected to grow at almost twice the pace of other occupations, and 75% of the fastest-growing occupations require significant STEM skills and knowledge.

Many secondary students perceive STEM subjects as boring and difficult, and opt for subjects they are confident in and that will help gain a higher university entrance score. Education faculties in universities battle to attract high-quality students into secondary STEM teacher education programs. Too many people believe the STEM disciplines are accessible only to students with “talent” in science and mathematics.

The STEM problem has been widely known in Australia for at least a decade. It has been the subject of multiple studies and reports. As a recent Action Statement from the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) indicated, it is time for less studies and more action.

The ATSE statement calls for remedial actions in our primary and secondary schools, linked to a major shift in university secondary STEM teacher education programs.

Good science and mathematics teachers are the keys to student choices and learning outcomes, so it is essential to pay particular attention to the recruitment and growth of the number and quality of these teachers.

The problems differ for mathematics and science teaching in secondary and primary schools, respectively.

We have more than enough high-quality students choosing university primary and middle school education courses. The problem is that far too few of them choose enough mathematics and science courses in their degree programs to become confident mathematics and science teachers. As a result, too little time is spent teaching quality STEM subjects in our primary schools.

The big problem in regard to secondary STEM teachers is that we have a grave shortage of them – and many of those currently teaching in our schools have been inadequately trained for the task or are teaching out of the field for which they were prepared. The situation is desperate and needs to be addressed as a high priority.

A recent Australian Council of Learned Academies report identified as a key objective for Australia “a National timetable for elimination of out of field teaching in STEM, rigorous discipline-specific teacher training programs, linked to monetary incentives”.

Our university education faculties are key to addressing our STEM teacher education problem. Yet many complain they are powerless to demand that their secondary STEM education students undertake at least a Bachelor’s degree in a STEM field because the students they are able to recruit are insufficiently prepared to undertake such programs.

Solving this student intake issue will take leadership. More university professor-level appointments in STEM education are essential in solving this challenge. Then, new strategic initiatives in regard to attractive recruitment of students for their STEM teacher education programs must follow. Flexible course structures must also be part of the mix, including “internship” styles of education of science and mathematics graduates who wish to enter the teaching profession.

In order to maintain a transparent link between teacher education and the workforce needs, it might be helpful to introduce for universities a mechanism to accredit all teacher education courses based on the quantity and quality of the STEM-related content.

Professional development programs coupled with formal certification schemes will be key strategies to improve the quality of STEM subject learning in schools. There is also an urgent need to find ways of supporting teachers of science and mathematics so that they remain in the classroom.

The rapidly changing nature of science and mathematics, in regard to both content and pedagogy, make it critically important to ensure that all practising teachers have regular access to coherent professional learning programs. In keeping with practices in other professions such as medicine and engineering, the professional development program should be collegiate in nature, incorporate peer interaction and lead to a regular accreditation process.

To further motivate participation it is vital to link teachers’ professional learning with salary rewards.

Emeritus Professor Mike Miller AO FTSE is a Vice President of the ATSE. He spent 9 years with Telecom Australia and 35 years in the University of South Australia, where he was Professor of Telecommunications and Foundation Director of the Institute for Telecommunications Research.