Australia has a STEM 'decay curve'

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Australia has a STEM 'decay curve'

Lack of teachers means kids aren't taking up science and maths.

Australia needs more qualified STEM teachers to encourage school students to take up science and maths subjects and combat a "decay curve" of plummeting participation in the field.

The house of representatives' standing committee on employment, education and training today published its report on innovation and creativity within the national workforce [pdf].

It found that despite Australia's ambitions to establish a thriving innovation ecosystem, the country is not producing enough young minds skilled in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

A big part of the problem is there aren't enough teachers proficient in STEM, and there's no incentive for them to move into the field, the committee said.

In 2011, only 16 percent of year 4 students were taught science by a teacher who specialised in science, and only 20 percent had a teacher who specialised in mathematics, it heard.

The committee said there appeared to be a "disconnect" between the realities of being a teacher and the ability of non-STEM teachers to adequately teach the subjects.

Resourcing is so tight that teachers are being pushed into disciplines they aren't qualified in, the committee heard, at the same time as hours are longer, pay is less, and ongoing employment is uncertain.

"It paints a picture of a system that is out of balance and exhibiting signs of stress because non-specialist teachers are unable to keep pace with the need for STEM teaching in schools," it wrote.

Few fans of maths

Mathematical literacy specifically is in "general decline", the committee found.

The proportion of girls who chose to ditch maths after year 10 tripled from 7.5 percent in 2001 to 21.5 percent in 2011, the Education department told the committee. The figures for boys also tripled but from a much lower base: 3.1 percent to 9.8 percent.

While the lack of qualified teachers is a big factor in the decline, so too is the lack of maths as a prerequisite for an ATAR - the score that assesses school-leavers for university entry - and many university STEM degrees, the committee said. 

Universities stopped setting maths prerequisites in the 1990s.

Students also think they can maximise their ATAR by dropping maths, the committee found, and are failing to see the relevance of STEM to their everyday lives.

Australia's chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel said that unlike most other subjects, if children aren't taught maths and English well in primary school it is "almost inconceivable that you will get back on and do it well" in high school or university.

There's no way to improve the situation substantially without requiring mathematics for an ATAR, the committee said.

"That would ensure the majority of school leavers attending university have undertaken formal maths study, while still leaving it open for universities to accept students via other pathways without making maths a blanket prerequisite," it wrote.

However it also recommended that universities re-establish mathematics as a pre-requisite for relevant tertiary courses, with an option for special circumstance exceptions.

How to fix the problem?

The committee called the general STEM decline a "decay curve" which could in large part only be improved by boosting the capacity and number of qualified STEM teachers throughout the country.

 "... governments have to start thinking about the education system as an ecosystem that begins at primary school," it said.

"The committee believes that a strategy over time to prevent this decay curve is required — because once students are lost from quantitative study they are usually lost forever."

It made 38 recommendations intended to address the problem.

The government should, among other things, develop a STEM reference panel reporting to relevant federal portfolio ministers through the chief scientist to "drive strategies for strengthening STEM at all levels of education", it said.

Teachers who are currently teaching STEM subjects but aren't trained in the discipline need to be phased out within five years, and there should be online credentialing and incentives for teachers to skill themselves in STEM.

Every school should have a STEM specialist charged with championing the subjects, while universities should include a STEM course in non-STEM degrees, and incorporate business or enterpreneurship units into STEM courses.

Metrics on STEM teaching in schools need to be identified and outcomes tracked by the Department of Education.

And the language around STEM needs to be changed to encourage young girls into the discipline; framing it not as "engineering" but rather "making, doing, design thinking and being creative", the committee heard.

The federal government's $1.1 billion 2015 national innovation and science agenda intended to address some of these issues. It aims to help "drive smart ideas that create business growth, local jobs and global success".

Similarly the science in Australia gender equity (SAGE) program, established in 2015, is working to improve gender equity and diversity in STEM. The committee said it was "impressed" with the initiative and suggested the government implement changes arising from it across more schools.

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