Do you speak STEM?

Picture: Neural Networks by Ana Campos (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

by Stephanie Downes

Australia has seen a recent push for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills in schools and the workforce in an attempt to grow and sustain our economical, business and research value. But why should you care about STEM skills in your daily lives and during school education?

I’m a Physical Oceanographer. “What’s that?” you may ask, and rightfully so as it’s probably a career choice you know very little about. Well, I’m a scientist who studies the ocean and climate using physics and mathematics.

The ocean soaks up over 90% of global warming and a third of human-produced carbon, with 40% of this going into our local Southern Ocean. In short, the ocean plays a major role in Earth’s climate and our lifestyle, and I need my STEM skills to find out how.

As a child I fell in love with mathematics because there’s was only one right answer- no beating about the bush with subjective or abstract views, but being able to reach that one right answer via a method of my choice. But in high school I was torn between a passion for both mathematics and art. In the end, mathematics (and physics) won because I figured it had broader applications in the multiple career paths I wanted to undertake. Sadly, there’s a serious shortage of people who feel the same way.


We have a HUGE problem on our hands in the world of STEM

Despite a 16% rise in the number of Year 11 and 12 students over the past two decades, the student participation in intermediate mathematics for the senior school years has decreased by around 10%, with an increase in students opting for General Mathematics or no mathematics at all. A similar decline in science subjects is also evident across Australian schools.

There are several reasons why students decide not to pursue STEM subjects. For example, in the case of Mathematics, students don’t want to engage because they’re uninterested in the subject, haven’t performed as well in the past, think it’s too hard, and think they’re not good enough… and let’s not forget the fact that mathematics is not compulsory in Year 12 in many Australian states.

major factor for students opting for the lowest level mathematics is that they can do the subject easily and thus boost their final Year 12 university-entrance score.

A recent CSIRO report suggested that weak STEM skills would cripple students’ success in their future career paths (also reported in The Australian). Numerous studies are continually being churned out insisting that STEM skills are crucial in the workforce.

One released by PwC released indicated that STEM skills were important for 75% of the fastest growing careers over the coming decades. And major employers prefer potential job applicants with mathematical and STEM skills (for example, as found in this survey by The University of New South Wales) for analysis, creativity and critical thinking.

The government released the National Innovation and Science Agenda in late 2015, specifically investing in collaborations between business, industry and research, boosting women in STEM research and also STEM school education, and supporting entrepreneurs. And Sydney University recently announced that admission to most of their degrees would require intermediate mathematics from 2019. Hopefully other universities follow suit, given that students with mathematics skills perform better academically than their non-mathematics peers.

Obviously our nation is crying out for more specialized STEM personnel.


But what about those of us not in STEM-based careers?

I often hear from people that they were bad at mathematics in school and didn’t like it that they will never need mathematics or science in their lives. This couldn’t be further from the truth. STEM education trains students in STEM literacy. This is the ability to apply science, mathematics, computing, technology and engineering concepts and skills to tackle real world issues.

Life is filled with applied STEM skills you acquire in school (and NOT just in the advanced mathematics levels). Examples include: reading your grocery receipts, budgeting, interpreting your pay slips, taxes and bills, investing market shares, understanding credit card and home loan interest rates, repaying your HECS loan, understanding how to best take care of your health, DIY home renovations, sporting techniques and statistics, understand the weather maps in the daily newspaper… and what about being part of the ever-expanding digital era?

While STEM skills are vital for our daily lives and numerous future career pathways, those people who naturally excel in the arts and humanities also have a role to play as they can help visualize our inventions and promote them abroad.


STEAM-ing ahead to a bright and successful future

Disseminating STEM-based output requires creative Arts and Design input, termed ‘STEAM’. The new STEAM era will provide opportunities for collaboration among differing organisations to satisfy our science and innovation needs. I’m not saying we should ditch STEM skills in favour of Arts and Design, but rather understand that they are complementary, each with their advantages.

As a climate scientist, I get to use most of my senior high school subjects/extra curricular activities- Visual Arts, Design & Technology, English, Debating & Public Speaking, and of course Mathematics & Physics- in my job every day. I write… a lot. I also create my own pictures for my article and I graphically illustrate my analysed data to make concepts and results easy to digest. I act as editor and lecturer on occasion. I am a mentor and supervisor for students. I visit schools and teach children from as young as 4 years old about the Earth’s climate. I organize science events for teachers and the general public. I present my scientific research at conferences around the world to individual research and business folks and even parliamentarians. I have to debate with climate deniers while being skeptical of the work of my peers. Plus I do all of the geeky stereotypical things you imagine a scientist does – data and statistical analyses and computer coding – and I do wear glasses (I can’t fight the inherited genes) but I have NEVER owned a lab coat!


In short…

With the decline in students choosing STEM subjects and the rise in our need for STEM experts in the workforce, clearly there’s a need for students to recognise their STEM potential. Educating students on possible careers and the journeys to get there with hands on experiences, emphasing likely career changes along the way and improving support for teachers are just some of the many ways we can increase STEM skills in future generations.

These changes need to be implemented well before the senior school years. STEM literacy is vital for our daily lives, and we need to embrace it from an early age.

For those interested in pursuing STEM subjects (e.g., mathematics, physics, chemistry, computing) beyond high school and university, motivation and determination are required. The path to any success is never straight nor wide nor simple. However STEM careers “can transform people” (ask Professor Emma Johnston) and provide a rich and diverse livelihood that not only benefits the individual, but also society as a whole.

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