Gaming away the Australian skills shortage

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Gaming away the Australian skills shortage

With the 2008 harvest of high school graduates now in the bag, universities are reporting rising enrolment figures in the traditionally stark fields of science and engineering.

Recent reports have celebrated a 10 percent increase in engineering enrolments at RMIT in Melbourne and Curtin University in Perth. Meanwhile, figures from the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) indicate a constant increase in engineering enrolments since 2000, and a record high in science enrolments since 2002.

According to Peter Taylor, Chief Executive of Engineers Australia, even this year’s enrolment increases might not be enough to satisfy the widely touted skills shortage in the Australian technology industry.

“It’s encouraging, but it’s still not meeting industry demand,” Taylor said.

A shortage of skilled scientists and engineers has plagued the nation since what has been called the ‘tech wreck’ at the turn of the millennium. While the demand for technology in today’s digital age has been on the up and up, students have traditionally been deterred from the IT industry by outdated fears of unemployment and an unattractively geeky stereotype.

UNSW lecturer, John Shepherd of the School of Computer Science and Engineering, speculated that one of the reasons young people might not consider studying science and engineering today is that in the present market they have opportunities to go straight into relatively high-paying jobs without further study.

Meanwhile, John Rice, who is the Dean of Science at UTS as well as the head of the Council of Deans of Science, explained that low enrolment figures in science courses have been an unfortunate truth for some time.

“The general data show that students much prefer courses other than science and this has been the trend for well over a decade,” he said.

“The Australian Council of Deans of Science believes that the lack of transparency of career paths involving science, the uninspiring experience that many students have of science in school, the view that science is limited to lab work, the 'geek' image and similar factors are largely responsible for the drift from science.”

Current initiatives aimed at raising awareness of opportunities in science and engineering attempt to make the subjects palatable to school students by introducing scientific thinking through competitions and games.

UNSW’s Faculty of Engineering aligns itself with potential students through programs such as ProgComp, which is a computer programming competition for high school students, and Robotics Workshops for primary and secondary school teachers and students.

Engineers Australia’s Taylor mentioned a program called Re-engineering Australia, which challenges 14 to 15-year-old students of all Australian secondary schools to design and manufacture model Formula One cars. The Science and Engineering Challenge is another national program that invites Year 9 and 10 students to participate in problem-solving contests at host Universities.

“I grew up with Mechano sets, and my kids grew up with Lego sets,” Taylor said, “so I think games are definitely a way to build an interest in engineering.”

“Now, we may need to find games that will appeal to a more digital generation,” he mused.

Online games are already being used as marketing tools by organizations such as the United Nations, U.S. army and Australian Defence Force.

Since its launch on Yahoo Games in 2005, the United Nations’ Food Force racked up more than three million downloads within its first year. The game consists of six mini-games that are intended to represent the challenges faced by, and hence increase worldwide awareness of the World Food Programme.

On the more violent end of the gaming spectrum, America’s Army was launched in 2002 as the official game of the U.S. army. The online game takes players through real-life soldiering from the barracks to the battlefields, and enjoys worldwide success as a First-Person-Shooter (FPS).

Following in the footsteps of our military allies, the Australian Defence Force has also released a gaming portal to host a range of specially developed army, navy and air force games. The portal’s purpose is evident from its home page, which features job advertisements alongside the games.

In a similar vein, U.S. space agency NASA is investigating the possibility of developing a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game to attract students to careers in space exploration, science and engineering.

In a recently published request for information from organisations interested in developing the game, NASA has expounded the merits of games in teaching and learning.

"Virtual worlds with scientifically accurate simulations could permit learners to tinker with chemical reactions in living cells, practice operating and repairing expensive equipment, and experience microgravity," the report states.

"A NASA-based MMO could provide opportunities for students to investigate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics career paths while participating in engaging game-play."

UTS’s Rice said that games, like the MMO proposed by NASA, could be helpful in promoting science and engineering to young people. The university currently has a virtual presence in Second Life, and is looking into launching an in-game design workshop for its students in late 2008.

“We would welcome any initiative such as the NASA initiative that creates a positive new image of what roles science trained people can play, and what futures are open to them,” Rice said.

UNSW Dean of Engineering Dianne Wiley agrees.

While she revealed no plans at this time to use online games for recruitment purposes, Wiley pointed out that some UNSW staff members currently use games – which are believed to help develop logical thinking - or online tools such as simulations in their teaching.

“From the point of view of promoting science and engineering, anything that is virtual reality or IT-related is attractive to kids and that’s what NASA is trying to do,” she said.

“What is needed is something that can put the idea of science and engineering in front of kids and parents.”

But while games may have a role in attracting young minds to a particular field of study, maintaining students’ interest may be another issue altogether.

UNSW’s Shepherd said that considering the set-up costs involved and the uncertainty over the benefits derived, it is likely to be more effective to use games or virtual worlds in teaching students who are already enrolled at the university.

A game may not result in young students developing an ongoing interest in science or engineering, he warned.

“Once they get to Uni and find that the Engineering degrees are not a continuation of ‘the game’, they'll lose interest,” he said.

According to Taylor, of Engineers Australia, the issue of promoting careers in science and engineering might be better tackled with an organised attack force of government, educational, and industry bodies.

Currently, there are over 400 different marketing initiatives in Australia that operate independently of each other, he said, explaining the need for an overriding, government-supported organisation that could coordinate the various programs.
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