Teaching STEM

The 5th Annual STEM Education Conference took place in Sydney in July and brought together early-learning, primary and high-school teachers, science and tech industry representatives, researchers and governments to challenge traditional teaching methods and integrate STEM programs into school curricula.

Science and technology are today evolving and spreading across all industries at the highest speed ever seen. The education system is therefore challenged to prepare students for a world that does not yet exist.

One of the most important themes at the conference was that bringing STEM into schools is not just about running projects where students are actively involved in science and tech activities.

The critical challenge is rather about teaching students a STEM approach to learning which will foster their ability to think rather than remember.

Integrating design thinking processes in all school subjects was suggested as a means to providing students with transferable skills of crucial importance whichever path they decide to take.

Meg Brighton, Deputy Director-General, ACT Education Directorate, and Member, National STEM Partnerships Forum, spoke of the importance of engaging kids in STEM as early as pre-school.

She belives that young children have more STEM aptitude compared with older students; they are naturally more curious and passionate about new discoveries and inclined to exploration. They usually don’t discern playing from learning even if what they are doing is hard.

“Stop asking kids what they want to do, ask what problems they want to solve”, she said.

The most succesful STEM programs are run by highly motivated teachers, industry and volunteer-based organisations.

Among speakers were Catie McClelland, a young engineer and Chief development Officer at Robogals Global who shows 3 to 8 years old girls how engineering is fun and exciting through hands on activities delivered in form of a story.

Also impressive were Jack Leung and Marina Wu who explained how they help students integrate STEM skills with entrepreneurship organising hackathons and incubators.

A team of highschool girls from Gippsland shared their experience in participating to a STEMsisters project where they designed and built a collar for skin cancer prevention in dogs. After participating in the program, students report enjoying the experience although their previous perception was that science, maths and technology were boring or too hard. Most of them now feel more confident about their abilities and skills and consider STEM as a possible career path.

It is undeniable that such enrichment programs have an extraordinary impact on the students who participate. However there is a call to invest more in educators to start changing the culture of the whole school system rather than relying on few passionate teachers.

Embedding the STEM approach into teaching, independently of the subject taught, will allow all students to be exposed to it.

It’s also challenging for teachers to fit extra curricular activities within very busy school schedules, as well as be constantly up to date with innovations.

For this reason, many speakers advocated for increased partnerships with industry and university that will provide students with valuable opportunities to meet STEM professionals and understand what science and technology careers look like.

Guest post by Manuela Callari PhD. Read more about the 5th Annual STEM Education Conference.