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Future-Proofing Students

Future-Proofing Students

By Nicholas Wyman

Ten partnerships are piloting an innovative program that provides high school students with an industry-supported pathway to a STEM-related qualification.

It’s not every day Year 9 students get to see and touch F/A-18 Fighter Hornets, but recently a group of students from Hunter River High School in NSW took up an invitation from BAE Systems to do just that. “Our guides showed us the insides of the hornets as well as letting us see the production line of these beasts,” said students Tiane and Gabby. “We felt so excited. We could have run a marathon. To us, this will be forever in our memory and the start of a passion for our own P-TECH journey at school.”

This is science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) teaching in action, and it’s not a one-off. Hunter River High is one of the schools piloting the P-TECH (Pathways in Technology) program. The program borrows from a New York idea that’s expanded across the US and internationally. In Australia, it has Federal government funding and backing from the Skilling Australia Foundation. The program builds long-term partnerships between schools, industry and tertiary education institutions, and gives senior secondary students an industry-supported pathway to a STEM-related post-school qualification.

P-TECH is opening new doors by giving high school students the knowledge and skills to seek out STEM education, training and employment pathways. By providing the framework for employers to work in partnership with schools, P-TECH is helping to equip young people with both the technical knowledge and job-ready skills they need to succeed in life and work beyond school. It’s this combination of soft skills and STEM knowledge that provides the foundation upon which to forge interesting and cutting-edge careers.

So far, 10 partnerships in seven jurisdictions are running P-TECH programs, with more to follow. Apart from the focus on real job opportunities for students, it also nurtures essential workplace skills such as leadership, communication and problem-solving.

So why do we need new approaches like P-TECH to develop Australia’s STEM capability? The Office of the Chief Scientist highlights some alarming facts when it comes to maths and science in Australian secondary schools. For example, participation in most Year 12 maths and science subjects is declining; and for science it’s the lowest in 20 years.

In this context, it is not surprising that Australia’s international PISA ranking has declined in maths and science. And of real concern is that by Year 8, only 13% of students like maths and only 28% like science. Doing more of the same and hoping for different results is not an option, and the solution is beyond any individual teacher or any institution acting in isolation.

As awareness of the importance of STEM skills grows, and educational outcomes decline, we’re seeing schools struggling to keep up. It’s a struggle made more difficult with around 20% of secondary maths and science teachers across all sectors (government, independent and Catholic) not qualified to teach the subject. Claiming excellence in STEM by just saying the words or posting a sign doesn’t make it real.

The fact is, schools can’t do it alone – and we shouldn’t expect them to. We need collective action in order to ignite students’ interest in STEM. Central to this is enlisting the expertise of employers and employees in STEM-related industries to work alongside teachers in preparing young people for the future. That’s P-TECH in a nutshell.

It’s a great example of real support the Australian government has given to encourage new education and training models focused on STEM knowledge, skills and training for young Australians. It’s an important element of the government’s broader innovation and science agenda, and has been happening while most of us have been mesmerised by digital-tech startup disruptors.

We’re in a period of rapid technological change, and competing on the world stage is a key pillar of Australia’s future economic growth and prosperity. We need an education and training sector that can prepare the next generation of young Australians for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.

P-TECH is not an add-on to the existing national curriculum; it resides comfortably within it. Supported by industry, and responsive to its changing needs, P-TECH provides a vehicle for the delivery of a range of learning outcomes through cross-curricula project-based learning, and helps students connect what they learn in the classroom to real-world applications. Importantly, schools that run the program offer students enormous opportunities to reach their full potential.

Australia’s first P-TECH schools opened in Ballarat and Geelong in 2016, answering calls from parents, educators and employers for relevant and meaningful pathways to employment for young people in their communities. IBM, one of the US founders of the P-TECH model, partners directly with the Ballarat school, and the Geelong school operates with a consortia of local companies including Barwon Health, Bendigo Bank, Opteon Group, GMHBA and Tribal.

Each pilot involves a multi-sector partnership between educators, local industry, government and community stakeholders, all focused on working together to engage and energise young people. In 2016, 100 students began their P-TECH journey.

Since then, seed funding has been allocated to initiate 12 new P-TECH partnerships across Australia, with many of them already established. This year more than 1000 students are taking part. A key factor in the success of this program is that each new school works with its industry partners to align the P-TECH learning program to local labour market needs. These span growth industries such as aeronautics, defence, information technology, data analytics, engineering and food science.

The partnerships are having great wins. As an example, Federation College’s partnership with IBM Australia for P-TECH saw the school win the 2016 Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority’s VCAL Partner Achievement Award. Federation College was named on The Educator’s Most Innovative Schools list for 2017.

Industry leaders are also stepping up with more than 35 employers now signed up as partners. By forging partnerships between industry and education, P-TECH learning programs are able to offer students a range of opportunities, including support from an industry mentor, access to workplace learning and, in some cases, paid work placements. Some of the partners that have committed so far include BAE Systems, Saab Australia, Thales, Jetstar Airways, Mars Foods Australia, Sanitarium, PwC and Telstra.

By offering students first-hand experience of the world of work and opportunities to develop relationships with employers and employees, P-TECH allows students to develop transferable workplace skills and enterprise mindsets. These are exactly what industry and employers are demanding.

The pace of change will continue to accelerate and bring with it opportunities. The future belongs to those who can think differently and take risks in the name of innovation.

Nicholas Wyman is Chief Executive of Skilling Australia Foundation.