The Australian Government and the CSIRO have recently announced a 25-million-dollar partnership to support Indigenous girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have poorer literacy and numeracy skills compared to other Australian Students and are less likely to participate and aspire for a career in STEM.
In the past decade there has been a steady decline in the number of students enrolling in Maths and Science subjects, but student enrolments in STEM subjects hit a 20-year low in 2017. The Australian Education Council also reports a slight gender difference in the enrolment of students in Maths and Science.
Only 72% of Secondary students are enrolled in mathematics and boys are 5% more likely to enrol in Mathematics subjects compared to girls. There is also a clear reduction in the number of students studying intermediate and advanced maths subjects. The decline in students studying more challenging mathematics subjects has a flow-on effect for students wanting to go on to study at university and obtain a career a STEM.
There is also a clear under-representation of women from low socio-economic backgrounds, rural and remote areas and Indigenous people participating in STEM.
Trends show there is an increasing demand for highly capable STEM graduates in Australia, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimates that careers in STEM are growing at 1.6% faster than in any other job sector. However, employers often look overseas to higher performing countries for more highly skilled STEM professionals.
A 2016 World Economic forum report ranked Australian students last in tech skills and interest in technical jobs. Although Australian students performed better than the OCED average, there is a clear downward trend in Science, Mathematics and Literacy.
Singapore is leading in STEM education with the greatest number of high-performing students. Australian students are performing at much lower achievement rates in comparison and are several years behind in Maths, Science and Reading. There is a strong decline in the number of students who perform highly and an increase in the number of students who are achieving at a low level. This indicates that student’s outcomes and aspirations in STEM is decreasing.
The report also shows a difference in the STEM career aspirations of boys and girls. Girls who perform highly are less likely to pursue a career in STEM.Girls who obtained a STEM qualification are also less likely to be employed in a STEM profession.
In 2011, there were 2.3 million people in Australia with STEM qualifications and only 16% of stem professionals were female. Furthermore, only 10% of STEM professionals worked in Education and Training. This raises serious concerns, as in 2019 STEM subjects will be implemented in schools across NSW and across the rest of Australia.
The lack of trained professionals, cost of technology, access to training and services severely impacts on a teacher’s ability to effectively teach STEM subjects. This is more apparent in rural and remote communities and with Indigenous students, and is representative of the much lower achievement rates compared to other Australian students.
Indigenous perspectives in STEM
Australia has the oldest living culture in the world: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ culture and knowledge has sustained this country for over 65,000 years. Indigenous Australians knowledge systems are deep and complex and could provide better or alternative solutions to current environmental problems.
The incorporation of Indigenous perspectives in STEM subjects across the Australian Curriculum has the potential to engage and encourage the participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in STEM.
There is a lack of depth of Indigenous perspectives incorporated into STEM subjects, there needs to be a broader range of topics that cover Indigenous perspectives across the syllabus, as well as information for teachers about how to incorporate these understandings.
For Australia to be a game player or game changer in the areas of STEM, there needs to be a more cohesive relationships between government, industry, universities and schools to promote the future participation and engagement of students in STEM. Government and industry need to develop opportunities and pathways for students studying STEM that lead to real life applications and career development.