Settlement Guide

Settlement Guide: the importance of STEM

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Australia is undergoing digital disruption that is set to dramatically change the workforce. Yet with a continued decline in student uptake of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) school subjects Australia will need to look overseas to bring in skilled migrants as we prepare the next generation for the digital future.

Australia is one of the most connected nations in the world with nearly three-quarters of the population using mobile phones to access the internet according to the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.  Accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) predicts that the growing ubiquity of technology will dramatically change the workforce with 44 per cent of current jobs likely to vanish in two decades.

The growing ubiquity of technology will dramatically change the workforce with 44 per cent of current jobs likely to vanish in two decades

PwC's A Smart Move report forecasts that 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations will require skills in the STEM fields. The country's peak information, communications and technology body, the AIIA, says technology is going to completely transform our economy, environment and society in the digital age. Rob Fitzpatrick is AIIA's Chief Executive Officer.

"We know for a fact the world is going digital first, and it's literally changing everything in our personal and professional lives. The digital we're seeing is increasingly embedded into everything.

Technology is going to completely transform our economy, environment and society in the digital age

There's a phrase called "internet of things" which means over time there's 100% penetration of mobiles, so mobile connectivity is not just in the phones we carrying, but also there will be smart devices in the cars, in infrastructure, and in the environment that are around."

 

As Australia shifts into a digital economy and increases its demand for more STEM skills, student participation rates in these subjects have dropped in recent years


However, as Australia shifts into a digital economy and increases its demand for more STEM skills, student participation rates in these subjects have dropped in recent years.

"We're seeing a study of each of the Australian states and territories from 1992 to 2012. Over a 20 year period, the total number of year 12 students increased by around 16 per cent but the participation rates for most science and mathematics subjects fell by 7 per cent for sciences and by 11 per cent for mathematics. While we don't have a target, it's clear that this is an area that should be growing."

Australia is one of the few OECD countries without a formal strategy in STEM education


Dr Marlene Kanga is president-elect of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations. She's concerned that Australia is one of the few OECD countries without a formal strategy in STEM education, considering three-quarters of our future jobs will require interaction with high technology, equipment and processes.

"So it's very urgently needed to have more young people taking STEM subjects. And in fact, it's declined so steeply in the 90s, 90 per cent of students used to study at least one subject in science now it is less than 50 per cent. This is according to research by the Office of the Chief Scientist and there's been a huge decline in the number of studying mathematics as well. In fact in NSW, you can leave high school and get a high school certificate without taking a mathematics subject which is a big issue."

 

The declining student participation in STEM subjects is largely due to a lack of qualified teachers in mathematics and science


Sydney University's Dr Rachel Wilson specialises in educational assessment. She says the declining student participation in STEM subjects is largely due to a lack of qualified teachers in mathematics and science.

"We've had declining participation rates amongst teachers and people going into teacher education programs. And this that means teachers are generalist teachers in primary school and teachers of non-maths subjects in high school are less and less equipped to talk about maths, integrate maths into their areas and their teaching across the curriculum."

 

Mathematics and science should become compulsory high school subjects for Australia to become competitive against our regional neighbours


Dr Wilson says Australia is falling behind many countries in STEM education. Year 11 and 12 students in Victoria, NSW and the ACT currently don't have to study maths or science. Dr Wilson believes mathematics and science should become compulsory high school subjects for Australia to become competitive against our regional neighbours.

"It's very important that we should make that compulsion for maths and science first amongst those who are doing teacher education programs because we cannot hope to turn around the trends unless we do that. And that would be the most strategic place to implement that expectation."

A push to make maths or science compulsory for Year 11 and 12 students by the federal government was rejected by the states


A push to make maths or science compulsory for Year 11 and 12 students by the federal government was rejected by the states in May this year. In the meantime, AIIA's Rob Fitzpatrick says it is clear we won't have enough skilled STEM workers trained to meet the demand in the short-term future.

"Given the transformation of our jobs economy is going to happen in the next fifteen years. We can't wait for the next generation to come through so we're actually going to require a transformation for all of us at all age categories."

 

Australia will need to look elsewhere to fill in the skill shortage


He says Australia will need to look elsewhere to fill in the skill shortage.

"We as an economy and talking with the government structurally, need to think about broader skill sets and talk about how we in the short term perhaps bring in skills from overseas to help accelerate the learning and capability in Australia."

 

Australia graduates around 6000 engineers each year, and this number has remained flat for about the last 30 years


Dr Marlene Kanga is the former national president of Engineers Australia. She has seen first-hand how skilled migrants have made an impact during the mining boom years.

 

Recognising the importance of STEM skills for a digital future, the federal government has allocated 65 million dollars to fund a range of initiatives to increase participation among children and young people in STEM subjects


"Australia graduates around 6000 engineers each year. And this number has remained flat for about the last 30 years. It hasn't changed. But the demand for engineers and engineering qualifications reached a high of 22,000 in the mining boom period. So we continue to see this flow of migrants. This is what's been helping the Australian economy because while the domestic students aren't increasing in the STEM areas we have an increasing number of migrants wanting to come to Australia."

Recognising the importance of STEM skills for a digital future, the federal government has allocated 65 million dollars to fund a range of initiatives to increase participation among children and young people in STEM subjects.


The Labor Opposition also offered support for STEM, proposing federally funded STEM teacher scholarships


The Labor Opposition also offered support for STEM during the election campaign, proposing federally funded STEM teacher scholarships. But Dr Rachel Wilson says what Australia needs is a long-term plan in order to compete against other countries in the age of digital disruption.

"We want to get teachers doing maths and science first, we want to have a long term plan so we expect all students to complete maths and science over say, the next 10 to 15 years. Now that will put us in a position where we are no longer a very unusual case internationally because at the moment we are. Most countries have an expectation that students complete maths for high school graduation, and many of them also expect science.  So, you know, we've got a lot of catch up to do."

National Science Week is exploring activities and events of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, during August 13 to 21. Children and adults can learn how drones, droids and robots are reshaping agriculture, mining, manufacturing, medicine, and space and deep ocean exploration.