Do these proposals adequately respond to the Chief Scientists recommendations – both now and over the longer term?

The idea which resonates the best with our work at the Australian Science and Mathematics School is to promote an entrepreneurial culture.

This certainly involves the development of a positive mindset, that is, an understanding of an individual that their potential is not described by a certain test, nor is there a ceiling to what they can learn, understand and achieve; that making a mistake is an opportunity for learning; to be corrected or given feedback is a gift and the recognition that effort is required for learning.

There needs to be a lot more research about how these attributes arise. What we have learnt at the ASMS is that we need to create the conditions that will encourage this type of thinking and learning. We do this by ensuring opportunities in the learning environment, spaces where our students can explore their own ideas, make mistakes, free from instruction and interference, allowing them to struggle. We suspend teaching as telling, skilling our teachers to coach the students as they are thinking.

We suspect that a lot of damage is done to children’s potential for creative thought and intuitive understanding by the 20th Century method of schooling. Sometimes promoted by a narrow interpretation of the implementation of the Australian Curriculum children may not be encouraged or allowed to explore their own interests because of the focus of disciplinary learning. Whilst disciplinary learning is important, it may best be learned through carefully constructed interdisciplinary and contemporary STEM themes that help young people to engage. Rather than drill and test student in disciplinary knowledge, schools can create conditions for inquiry and exploration of STEM (itself an interdisciplinary idea) learning.

Thus we recommend that schools are actively encouraged to develop the conditions for interdisciplinary learning and the teaching activities that will support it. This would require professional development of teachers and the reform of the school design features that keep our schools conducting 20th Century teaching and learning.

Do you consider there are any areas that require more urgent action? Have we missed anything?

Developing a growth mindset about learning mathematics.

Learning STEM, and in particular mathematics has a serious image problem in our country. Unfortunately, many people in our country believe that a person’s intelligence is fixed at birth. When it comes to learning mathematics, it is commonplace for people, including teachers, to think that only some people are “good at maths”. As we know, not continuing with advanced mathematics in the senior secondary school severely limits participation in the physical sciences and continues to exacerbate the lack of STEM graduates.

We suggest that the strategy could include a publicity/ advertising campaign to help schools and teachers convince parents and students that indeed, everyone can learn mathematics; that it is worth learning mathematics; it’s worth not giving up just because dad couldn’t do it. Now that we know about the plasticity of the brain, there is no reason not explain this to the public and celebrate our power as humans to learn and enjoy the beauty of mathematics.

We know that STEM learning and understanding requires mathematics at all levels of its development. It is vital that our country accepts a growth mindset about learning mathematics. We should do our best to encourage our children to enjoy learning mathematics, believe that they can learn it, and we need our teachers and parents to believe that as well. It might take some time. Unless we overcome the fixed mindset towards learning mathematics, and reform the messages and opportunities to learn it, we may not be able to stem (sic) the tide of our young people turning away from STEM learning.

This may be challenging to those who use ability grouping (streaming) in mathematics as a gatekeeper to exclude many students from learning more advanced mathematics. Moving from a mindset of “mathematics learning for the chosen few” to “mathematics for all” is a fundamental shift that will be required if we are to achieve the Chief Scientist’s vision for a science nation.

Attending to the messages that we give girls about learning mathematics in order to increase their participation in the physical sciences.

Unfortunately the participation of girls and women in STEM, and particularly the TEM, is poor and possibly getting worse over time. We are quite surprised and disturbed that The “Vision for a Science Nation” has virtually ignored this trend. The strategy needs a dedicated focus on improving the STEM education of girls if we are to tackle this important issue. We implore the Minister, the Chief Scientist and the Department of Industry and Science to produce a strategy that explicitly addresses this issue. There are many prominent women scientists, educators and business leaders who could develop a strategy within the broader recommendations that arise from this consultation.

Which of these proposals will have the greatest impact on Australia’s STEM performance?

Engaging young people to learn STEM.

Not surprisingly the Australian Science and Mathematics School would regard the education strategy having the most potential to create change in the longer term. It is clear that young people are turning away from STEM. There has been some research conducted by the Chief Scientists office and the Academy of Science which has shown both attitudinal and structural issues are driving this. The STEM courses designed in the 20th Century are not engaging young people enough and the 20th Century methodology of getting into university via a high ATAR is also not helping. These drivers need urgent change.

The learning environment available to schools has been disrupted by information technology. It is vital that schools move away from teachers giving lectures, directing the learning and using textbooks; this is way too boring for most of our students who can explore whatever they want to know and share their learning online.

We need to move away from the 20th Century school design features such as one teacher, one class, one classroom, one discipline, one textbook to 21st Century design features such as teams of teachers from different disciplines working together to design and teach authentic themes of inquiry based interdisciplinary STEM curriculum to larger cross aged groups, in an open and online learning environment. The potential of the 21st School design features as described above allows students to engage with disciplines through contemporary themes.

If in response to “advancing a national STEM in school strategy”, we continue to deliver a 20th Century education experience we may continue the decline in the uptake of STEM because young people might continue to see it as unconnected with their lives, boring and hard to learn, thus not worth pursuing. A focus on linking industry to STEM learning in schools has the potential to provide authentic learning contexts for STEM learning.

We support ideas such as providing a new set of STEM resources based on 21st Century themes, and a sustained effort to introduce coding (which the ASMS is doing in conjunction with learning mathematics).

Unfortunately, the Australian Curriculum’s scope and sequence has put undue focus on disciplinary learning. We advise that a renewed focus on assessment of the Capabilities of the Australian Curriculum may help drive interdisciplinary learning programs.

Attracting and training good teachers.

The Australian Science and Mathematics School had a close relationship with TEACHSA the South Australian Government strategy to recruit, reskill and retrain STEM teachers. This $80M program attracted STEM professionals to undertake an M.Teach, and provided professional development for over 200 teachers. The program found that monetary incentives helped to attract STEM professionals who have shown to bring industry experience into the school and classroom.

There is an old saying that goes, “you teach the way you are taught, not the way you are taught to teach”. Whatever is done to with education, we believe that the courses need to model 21st Century methodologies rather than just the 20th Century lecture tutorial essay practicum exam routine.

Ideally STEM teachers should actually DO (one or more of) science, technology, engineering, mathematics, rather than just learn about it. eg Science teachers who actually do some scientific inquiry, have more chance to be able to design and teach that process. Preservice teachers need to understand the neuroscience of learning that is, how children learn, eg Mathematics teachers need to know how mathematical concepts are developed from birth to 18, creating a deep knowledge of the learning processes. STEM teachers need to learn both individual disciplinary learning and in an interdisciplinary team so that they can reproduce that at school level.

Which of these proposals will enable you and your organisation to contribute to Australia’s STEM performance?

The Australian Science and Mathematics School provides a professional development service to educators interested in engaging young people in STEM. We work with up to 2000 educators each year, mainly from the secondary schools and some primary schools, in our state, from the nation and from our international partners.

The school’s strategic plan identifies community, industry and international partnerships to extend learning as a focus for development. We will benefit from activities that encourage industry to engage with schools in order to provide authentic contexts for STEM inquiry and learning.

Susan Hyde

On behalf of the leadership team of the Australian Science and Mathematics School