Inspiring the scientists of the future, today

What is STEM? By now we all know this snazzy acronym stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. However, getting students enthused about studying STEM is another challenge altogether. This week on School Stream, we look at STEM, Science and some STEM careers you may not have thought of, as well as some engaging projects, resources and a booklist to help light the STEM spark.

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What is STEM? (An overview)

The disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics often overlap seamlessly and with very little fanfare in the real world, but STEM looks a little bit different in the classroom. In a curriculum context, STEM is based on the idea of integrating four discrete disciplines that are usually taught as separate subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – in an interdisciplinary and cohesive approach to learning. What differentiates STEM from math and science education as we traditionally know it, is the applied learning environment that shows students how the scientific method is relevant beyond the school gate and can help solve important real-world problems. 

Why is STEM important? 

STEM is well placed to support students in being prepared for a future where today’s 15 year-olds will navigate as many as 17 employer changes across 5 different careers,  It’s safe to say work as we know it is going to look very different in the next 10 years. The Foundation for Young Australians’ (FYA) research series New Work Order states:

The New Work Order shows that young people are facing the most significant disruption in the world of work since the industrial revolution… By 2030, automation and globalisation will change what we do in every job.”

Alongside the subject-specific skills associated with the four disciplines, STEM promotes problem solving, creativity, inquiry skills, maths skills, science skills, engineering design thinking, critical thinking and perhaps most crucially, collaboration. Essentially all the skills today’s students will need to thrive.

How do teachers and students feel about STEM?

The Australian Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources commissioned a study to find the answer to this question and, if the results of the report are anything to go by, teachers feel pretty confident and positive when it comes to STEM. 

87% of teachers were able to accurately define STEM, and 72% of teachers felt “Very/Somewhat Confident” when it came to connecting STEM content to relevant and real-world career examples.” 

It seems students also have positive attitudes towards STEM, despite fears that scientific literacy is on the decline among Australian students. 

  • 79% of students surveyed in a 2013 study exploring Science Literacy said science education is “absolutely essential or very important” to the Australian economy. 
  • In terms of their attitudes towards science, eight in 10 respondents agree that scientists make a positive impact on the world, and two thirds feel confident that they could achieve good results in Science, Technology and Mathematics. (Teacher Magazine)

However, when it comes to engineering, the story begins to change:

“… student attitudes towards Engineering weren’t as positive, with 38 per cent confident they could achieve good results in the subject, and 42 per cent expressing a general interest in it (compared to 64 per cent expressing an interest in Science). (Teacher Magazine)

With many adolescents associating a career in engineering as synonymous with a career in STEM, this may well be something we need to keep in mind.

5 Resources to support STEM learning

A list of careers in STEM 

Every job is going to be impacted by elements of STEM; from pharmacy assistants to electronics sales staff, nurses to farmers, video game developers to (gulp) teachers. Here are ten exciting not-so-obvious STEM careers that might help motivate reluctant students:

  • 3D Animator
  • Paleontologist
  • Urban Planner
  • Fire Fighter
  • Accountant
  • Museum Conservator
  • Librarian
  • Stockbroker
  • Landscape Architect
  • Ecologist

See a comprehensive list at STEM Australia.

1. 55 Easy Science Experiments Using Things You Already Have on Hand

This is a wonderful resource with 55 science experiments that run the gamut of almost every aspect of science and engineering. Whether you want to design a cell phone holder, turn milk into plastic, mummify a hotdog and so much more, this list will have something. Suitable for students at Primary level.

2. Pen Pal Project

The lost art of letter writing is reimagined in this Melbourne-based project that pairs scientists and students. From a student participating in the project:

“Before this pen pal I didn’t really take much notice of science but after this, I could see myself as being a scientist… It interests me a lot more than it did before. I think scientists are really important and they are the first to discover things. It’s like solving a mystery. She (biochemist and molecular biologist, Jennifer Payne) has good handwriting and there are diagrams in the letters. I love the diagrams. It makes it fun. I really like microbiology. I like learning about bacteria,” 

3. A reading list with STEM themes

While some students – even the very young ones – will think of themselves as ‘good at English and writing but not maths and science’ this reading list shows young bookworms that doesn’t have to be the case.

4. A reading list to encourage girls in STEM

A great list of stories to inspire the next Marie Curie or Zaha Hadid.

5. Nature play for preschool students

A recent report by Australian researchers into the benefits of ‘nature play’. They found: 

“When STEM concepts are inspired by the children’s interests, curiosities and questions, learning is more powerful, engaging and enduring.” There are loads of ideas to get preschoolers out and engaging with STEM before they even see a classroom or science lab.

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