STEM education

Want to crush climate catastrophe? You better develop engineers early

To face many of the challenges of climate change or pandemic recovery, we need STEM workers in Australia to provide solutions to complex issues. How? Address skills shortages in primary school.

Reports about the shortage of a technically qualified workforce in engineering are not new, and have been reported in the media for decades. However, despite decades of research focused on national investment, education priorities, access to outreach programs and negative attitudes to STEM, Australia has not been able to turn this around.

Our research indicates that the focus for growing a skilled engineering workforce should be in our primary schools, where there is strong potential to harness interest exhibited in engineering-type activities. If this interest is sustained through secondary school by providing up-to-date advice to students, our efforts might lead to tertiary study options.

Falling STEM participation

In Australia, despite an overall increase in Year 12 enrolments, participation in the sciences (apart from earth sciences) and advanced maths dropped in the decade to 2012.

These trends and projections of enrolment in tertiary engineering studies suggest a shortfall in scientific and technical capabilities that could compromise Australia’s potential to be at the forefront of global scientific and technological development. A similar picture is occurring in the UK, US, and continental Europe.

We believe young people’s negative views about engineering contribute to this, including the view that engineers are ‘geeks’, wear hard hats, and that engineering is a career better suited to men.

To unearth how these views are formed we surveyed more than 2,500 Australian students about their interests in, attitudes towards, and knowledge and understandings of engineering. We sought the views of primary school students (555 in Year 5), high school students (493 in Year 11), and tertiary students (1,517 university students in the first and fourth years of engineering degrees).

Primary students favour engineering

Broadly, we found that primary school aged students were more positively predisposed to engineering than secondary students; that careers advisors provided strong influences on high school students choices; and that university engineering students were motivated not only by the financial rewards associated with their potential careers but by a long-held interest in maths, science, and engineering-type activities.

This leads us to conclude that there is strong potential to harness and work with interest in engineering at an early age, and there is work needed to leverage advice and sustain interest at secondary school.

And this has important ramifications for directing efforts to promote careers in engineering.

Our research supports initiatives to target the early years; that early exposure and continuous development with science and engineering concepts can affect retention and sustain interest in STEM in later school careers and fields of study.

Tapping into an enjoyment of mathematics and science as early as possible in primary school, when the interest is very high, could potentially lead to greater interest in the engineering profession.

A need to break stereotypes

Our study revealed some other interesting findings that have policy ramifications.

Primary students were significantly more interested in engineering-type activities than high school students, and primary students were less inclined to think people who did science and engineering were ‘geeks’.

For primary students, maths was more interesting than science, but the reverse was true for secondary and university students.

Primary, secondary and university students all said gender equality was desirable, with only a tiny minority of students not supportive – less than half a percent in the Year 4 engineering sample. However, in both our university groups, males made up approximately 80% of the sample.

And while stereotyping by gender decreased as students became older, the tendency to associate engineering with ‘geekiness’ increased.

Year 11 students had lower perceptions of engineers than Year 5 students.

About 25% of school students did not find maths interesting and about 20% did not find science interesting.

For the Year 11 students, interest in computing was lower than for maths or science, and almost half of them did not find computing interesting.

Careers advisors were named as the main influence by the majority of secondary students interested in engineering, as opposed to information from their dad or brother, which was the major source for primary students.

For all school students, popular media (TV and internet) and teachers were seen as important sources of information.

An urge to invent

Most engineering students say their motivation to become engineers stems from a natural inclination towards maths and science or an ‘urge to invent’.

Among engineering students, 59% had no engineers in their family, 27% had one, and 9% had two; 7% had female engineers in their families.

A valuable finding from this study is that an interest in maths, science, engineering or an ‘urge to invent’ are the driving forces behind a career in engineering (not financial reward) and that this interest develops early.

The key seems to be to engage students when they are young and still receptive to STEM ways of thinking and sustain this interest with relevant career advice in secondary school.

Elena Prieto is an Associate Professor in Mathematics Education at the University of Newcastle. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and a PhD in Theoretical Computer Science. From 2005, she has worked extensively in STEM education, including several Australia-wide research projects. She is currently engaged in projects focused on equity in STEM and teacher professional development.

Image of young boy in header from the Smithsonian Lemelson Center Greatest Invention Day and is used under a Creative Commons licence. It has been lightly cropped.

Revaluing science in the school subject marketplace

Around this time each year Australian students are thinking about the subjects they will choose for their final two years of school. Sadly, around half are likely to decide that they don’t want to continue with science. I find this astonishing and a huge concern. I’ve had several careers in varied fields and science is the most worthwhile thing I’ve studied. I needed to look more closely at why students reject science and what can be done about it.

Concerns for falling enrolments in science

The downward trend in science enrolments in secondary schools in Australia has been a concern for decades. The Office of the Chief Scientist reminds us that science is critical to Australia’s future and is where jobs growth will be. Education research into why the decline has happened has been extensive and thrown up a list of possible reasons.

However we still really don’t know why so many students reject science in their senior years and, significantly, how we might go about reversing it.

I decided to look at the problem from a new perspective, from the perspective of how the subject is marketed to students. I wondered if the problem could involve how science is valued compared to other subjects that students can ‘buy’.

How I researched the marketing of science

My research looked at how adolescents choose subjects and how science fits into the subject selection marketplace for Year 10. I conducted focus groups with 50 students from five secondary schools and studied the environment within which students chose their subjects (what they were told and given, and by whom). After finding out what students thought, I interviewed 15 adults who assisted students to make their subject choices to see how this compared. Finally, I conducted a survey of 379 students who had recently chosen their subjects. Read the paper on my website here.

The survey was not typical; it contained a best-worst scaling (BWS) component that was completed by 333 students. Best-worst scaling is special because it allows the factors that students consider in choosing their subjects to be ranked by comparing the factors against one another. It means that we can know which factors for choice are more or less important to students when they choose subjects, and how this affects science.

Although best-worst scaling has been used to look at teachers’ decisions and in many other fields, this is the first time it has been used to look at student choices. It means we can explore what is in the forefront of students’ minds when they come to choosing or rejecting the subject of science as a senior secondary school subject.

What I discovered about how students choose subjects

In focus groups (part of the methods I used in my research), students described choosing their final year subjects in two stages. The first stage was a choice involving subjects they “love” or “hate” (they used these words) and then in the second stage students went about valuing subjects in terms of how useful it would be for a career or further study and how much effort they would need to put in to get good marks. Unfortunately, this is where things go wrong for science.

The figure below shows 21 factors that I found students considered when choosing their subjects. The maximum score is 5 when a student always chose that factor as the most important and -5 if they always chose it as least important.


You can see that interest expectation was the number one ranking factor. The next two most important factors are the need for career (as in the need for this subject in a future study or career) and then the mark expectation. Therein lies the problem.

Students chose subjects they thought would be interesting, useful for their careers and would give them high marks. Obviously they expect science will not deliver in these areas as much as other subjects available to them might do.

The two problems

So there are two main problems. First, students saw science less interesting and more difficult compared to other subjects, and this led them to believe they would be less likely to get high marks in science assessments. (This belief was also common with the adults I interviewed). Students didn’t say they wanted to avoid work, rather they believed if they worked hard it had to result in higher marks.

Second, students saw science as a subject that is only useful if you wanted to do a ‘scientific’ job, such as becoming a doctor or an engineer.

This means science can be seen as ‘expensive’ in terms of effort, with limited benefits for use in a future career or study. To an adolescent this double effect can make science look like ‘bad value’, so they choose something else.

Revaluing science

Science is useful in a wide range of careers and it supports understanding a complicated 21st century world. Unfortunately this is not clear to adolescents.

It struck me that their view of the usefulness of science is much more narrow than the view of students who did science at school decades ago. (The view probably of most of us who are trying to fix the problem today.)

When I was at school in the late 70s science enrolments where high. Science was seen as a staple subject alongside maths and English. Even those who did not particularly like science would do science at school because it was considered necessary for a rounded education. This is sadly no longer the case.

What can be done

It is important that more adults know how students perceive science so they can help change their narrow view. My research will help.

I believe, as educators we need to think more about how we present science and how we talk about it in the classroom. But making science more interesting and enjoyable in classrooms is just part of it.

Year 9 and 10 students need to be shown the true value of science in their lives and careers. This information should come from someone students will listen to. If you look again at the figure, you will see that advice from teachers and parents is quite far down the list and advice from peers is even further.

Students today tend to make their own subject decisions. So perhaps we could ask past students who used their science outside traditional science roles to share their stories with our present students. Also we could look to science graduates who found science useful in other careers to spread the word.

Especially schools need to think about how they write and present subject selection information, to help students see the big picture. It’s all about the message. People who help students choose their high school subjects need to have a consistent message: “Science is VERY useful for your career and future study, here’s how.”

Another message could be: “Consider the risks of NOT doing science in your senior secondary school education in the 21st century”.

We also need to help students understand they can get good marks in science and those good marks could help them gain entry to university, an apprenticeship or entry to their preferred vocational education course.

All I am asking of educators is: in your classrooms and especially at subject selection time, please be aware of how students choose their subjects. And most of all, to everyone involved in the process of choosing subjects: please give science a chance.


Dr Tracey-Ann Palmer is a Lecturer and Researcher in the School of Education in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. She loves science but like many graduates left biochemistry a few years after completing her degree doing an MBA and working in the finance sector doing product management and marketing. Her PhD on science subject choice was completed in 2015. She loves to sing, dance and paint and is learning to play the ukulele. Here is her website. Contact Tracey-Ann on or through Twitter @TAPalmerScience

The NSW Education Standards Authority responds to Charlotte Pezaro’s post: Specialist maths and science teachers in primary schools are part – a key part – of the solution

This blog post is a response to Charlotte’s Pezaro’s post Specialist science and maths teachers in primary schools are not the solution

To support the teaching and learning of STEM, and specifically mathematics and science, NSW has taken a number of deliberate actions and decisions.

  • Minimum entry standards have been set for teaching degrees and teaching graduates need to pass literacy and numeracy tests to ensure quality teaching.
  • New K-6 syllabuses in English, Mathematics, Science and Technology, History and Geography have been developed and are currently being taught in schools.
  • Primary teachers working in our schools can specialise in mathematics and science.

This NSW initiative for primary teachers to specialise in mathematics and science does not replicate the high school teaching model.

Primary teaching students completing a specialisation will undertake additional courses in mathematics or science, and in how to teach these subjects.

This gives initial teacher education students the opportunity to undertake a more extensive focus in these areas.

Primary teacher graduates with a STEM specialisation will have broader employment options and be available to lead efforts in primary schools to strengthen student’s knowledge, skills and confidence in mathematics and science from Kindergarten.

These specialists will help give young students more confidence in mathematics and science, so they’re well prepared for high school and future careers.  

The NESA specialisations policy does not compromise preparation of all primary teaching graduates to effectively teach across the key learning areas from K-6.

NESA continues to ensure that all NSW primary teaching degrees require discipline knowledge and pedagogical skill development in each of the key learning areas in primary.

This formal recognition of primary teaching specialisations is one of a suite of measures to enhance the teaching of STEM in NSW schools.


Peter Lee is Inspector, Primary Education, at the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA). The NSW Education Standards Authority replaced the Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards NSW (BOSTES) on 1 January 2017.

Girls and coding: draw strength from the community focus

Girls and coding, I find it heartening that we are talking about making the connection and that some politicians seem to be listening. Coding is a route to raising young people’s engagement in technology, so we need to make sure girls don’t miss out when it comes to encouraging participation. But learning to code is just one way of getting students involved.

The ‘get the kids coding’ myth

As Bill Shorten said when he launched Labor’s election pledge of $4.5 million to get more girls into coding and the digital universe.

“Computational thinking can take many forms, and how it can engage minds of Australia’s young students. We want to bust the myth that children need to be coding. We want kids to learn to think computationally – and coding is just one tool for that outcome, and it doesn’t have to happen in front of a computer screen.”

I think he was spot on. The current focus on coding is akin to building a sentence structure curriculum rather than a complete English or Language Arts curriculum. Coding is only one entry point into the larger domain of computational thinking.

I spent this week in Portland Oregon as a guest of the Intel Global Engage Community Leaders Summit. As part of their work, educational leaders from about the globe were examining prospective community themes for 2016. The topic of “getting kids coding” came up and overwhelmingly the group agreed that this focus was too narrow, that we need larger computational thinking as the goal.

While “coding” as a symbol might make this type of knowledge seem more tangible and accessible, we should not be frightened by the more unfamiliar, bigger domain of “computational thinking”. We need to keep reminding ourselves that coding is only one part of that domain.

Yes we need more girls involved

No-one would dispute the figures that show females are not adequately represented in STEM careers in Australia. Indeed these ratios appear to be falling. When the Australian STEM Video Game Challenge announced its winners last week it was painfully evident that girls are under represented. Girls were winners in only one of the eight categories, the Female category.

While the Australian Council for Educational Research, which ran the challenge, did a great job having females in technological careers on the judging and discussion panels, the male domination of the awards was very disappointing for 2015. As a side issue, we have to ask ourselves if the creation of such a category (female game designers) means that girls are ruling themselves out of other possibilities by only entering this focus area, competing against each other, and thereby further minimalizing the representation of girls.

Bringing schools and the community together is the way to go

Shorten’s announced program of $4.5 million would see grants of $150,000 go to projects aimed specifically at getting young school-age girls into coding and the digital universe. I think this really is the way to go.

As I sat in on a mentor information session for Code Club recently I realized the community possibilities of Shorten’s promise. In the room were geek mums taking time out of work to be at home with their kids, young programmers looking for an avenue to share their passions and company representatives wanting a local partnership relationship with schools, along side a math teacher looking for a hook to make math more relevant to his students.

Bringing the community into schools in this way not only has the potential to expose girls to current local role models but builds new relationships with some of the organizations students might aspire to work in down the track. Yes the funds could be used to train all teachers to deliver computational thinking but how long would that take?

This is a fast moving field and and we want students to learn more than ABOUT computational thinking. Students need relationships with more than just procedural knowledge, they need to see application of that knowledge, its real world value and taste the possible careers ahead of them.

Funding community and collaborative projects and groups offers an agile approach to building educational capacity. As Shorten said, “A focus of this program will be to ensure stronger partnerships with schools, skilled professionals as mentors, and tech companies who have shown leadership in this area like Telstra, Westpac, Google, Microsoft and Intel.”

We don’t need to wait for an election

We can be working on project ideas right now, we don’t have to wait for an election or the possibility of Shorten coming good on this promise. Find out what potential exists in your school’s local community and start that conversation. And know that you don’t have to invent it all from scratch (in joke there) because there are many organizations and projects already breaking through in this area.

I hope the educational innovators and techno parents who read this blog might instigate local school community partnerships that bring great existing programs such as Code Club Australia, the student run Robogals, the Tech Girls Movement or UTS Collabor8 Project into their schools and through that experience envision their own new and exciting partnerships and projects.

The key here is for the rising tide to raise all boats and have all girls in STEM groups and projects learn from each other. The goal is widespread representation of females in STEM careers in Australia. The outcome would be good for all Australians.


BronHead-e1435230323622 copyDr Bronwyn Stuckey, is a Specialist in Gamification, Community of Practice and Open Badges. She has been engaged in educational community and gameful practices in learning development for the past 15 years. She has worked to explore virtual worlds, games in learning and how we can cultivate identity, agency, citizenship, leadership, and community. Bronwyn earned her PhD in researching the core factors supporting successful online communities of practice. Since leaving lecturing and learning design in the higher education sector (OTEN, UOW, QUT, UWS) her research, consultation and design have been in gamification and game-inspired designs for professional learning and communities of practice.

Bronwyn has consulted in K-12, adult and workplace learning contexts in relation to communities of practice, games based learning and aspects of gamification. She is a co-facilitator of the Open Badges Australia and New Zealand (OBANZ) community and has for the past 2 years researched the efficacy of open badges in re-imagining and re-framing academic learning programs and contexts. She is a postdoctoral research fellow of the Arizona State University Center for Games & Impact and is global leader in the gamification for community and identity cultivation. Bronwyn is also lead member of the Sydney Education Technology Group  working to support edutech startups and to make Sydney the hub of educational entrepreneurship.

Why Australia needs more women in STEM professions and how you can help us get there

Only 11% of today’s engineers are women. Does it matter? Well, imagine for a moment what our world might look like if that balance was fifty-fifty. How might our cities be different? Our schools? Our hospitals?

I was recently talking to a woman named Emmy, who shared with me that as a teen she wanted to be a medical engineer. She was inspired by this idea after noticing that if hospital beds were able to adjust just another 20cm lower, it would make the world of difference when patients are transferring from a wheelchair to a bed. She didn’t become an engineer, but pursued her interests and became a nurse. When I asked her why she didn’t go into engineering, she said, “I love helping people, I didn’t think I was smart enough and I wasn’t good enough at maths.”

These are just some of the traps young women, and also in many cases their parents and teachers fall into when thinking about engineering and other science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) professions.

Why getting females into STEM professions matters

There are a couple of reasons it matters that only 11% of engineers are female. For one, the gender pay gap in Australia currently sits at 82 cents to the dollar (female to male earnings). Much of this can be attributed to the underrepresentation of women in higher paying careers like those that make up the majority of STEM professions. The problem is that girls, at a higher rate than boys, are electing not to study maths and science in senior high school, compounding to fewer women pursuing STEM careers. This is important because 75% of the world’s fastest growing careers require STEM skills, so in order to make sure today’s girls aren’t left behind we need to close the gender gap in relevant subjects.

Second, STEM professions predominantly are tasked with solving some of the worlds’ toughest challenges and are a great driving force for innovation. Importantly one of the key ingredients necessary for innovation is diversity. This means we need to engage gender diverse thinkers in these subjects.

Critical thinking involved with STEM is basic to many careers

My point is about the skills students learn from pursuing STEM subjects (even just from taking maths and science subjects at school). These are skills that will enable them to become suitably qualified for a broad range of careers. The skills I’m talking about are not the obvious ones like understanding the bending moments of beams, or knowing what ‘super laminar flow’ means. I’m talking about skills like critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, communication, leading teams. These are the skills I firmly believe we need to equip today’s students with to effectively prepare them for future careers. The beauty of maths and science is critical thinking: How to come across a problem, critically evaluate it, break it down, think about the knowledge and other resources at your disposal and come up with a strategy for an appropriate solution.

The sobering statistics on girls and STEM subjects in the HSC

The percentage of girls studying no maths at all for the Higher School Certificate increased from 9.5% in 2001 to 21.8% in 2011. Only 13.8% of girls took one maths and one science subject for their higher school certificate in 2011, compared with 18.6% for boys.

At the same time only 1.5% of girls studied advanced maths alongside physics and chemistry.

Overall participation rates of girls in Advanced Maths have steadily declined (16% in 1994 to 9% in 2012). For every 25 males there were only 14 females studying this subject.

Overall participation rates in Physics have steadily declined (21% in 1992 to 14% in 2012). By 2012 there were three times as many males studying Physics than females.

These are terrible statistics and indicate a dire need to do something.

What can teachers and parents do?

When people think of engineering or STEM careers, they often think, similarly to Emmy, that they need to be super smart, or great at maths to succeed. It’s going to take a community-wide shift in the conversation about STEM to bust these myths, starting one person at a time.

Emmy’s context for maths stopped her from pursuing her dream of becoming a medical engineer. But as a nurse she uses maths and science every day, from administering medications to checking heart rates. As influencers, we need to think about how our own context for maths and science impacts the way we talk about it with other people, particularly young women. Consider that you have a choice when talking with young people, to either inspire them or to teach them that maths and science are hard.

Parents can help their children to adopt a growth mindset towards maths and science subjects and encourage the joy of having a go and learning from failures. Teachers are now increasingly embracing resources that help them connect maths to the real world, which is great, we need a lot of this. We need students to see the relevance of what they are learning in class to their futures, and to discover how the skills they are learning will be useful for whatever future they pursue.

We can all embrace the idea that the skills we learn from science and maths are core skills that will help prepare young people for the careers of the future. Let’s pass this idea on to the next generation.

Why engineering?

Engineering is about creating solutions for communities, helping people, and making a real difference in the world through maths and science. An engineers’ job can range from devising water sanitation solutions for developing communities, through to creating prosthetics for people who have lost limbs.

Girls don’t need to be the best at maths to do this, that isn’t even important. What is important is that they have a go, they learn something and they don’t close themselves off to an opportunity because they think it’s too hard, or a job for men.


Jillian kenny copyJillian Kenny was named as one of 2014’s ‘100 Most Influential Australian Women’ by the Australian Financial Review and Westpac. Jillian’s passion for providing opportunities for non-traditional entrants into science, technology, engineering and maths professions has led her to establish two social enterprises serving this space.

In 2012, Jillian co-founded the non-profit organisation Power of Engineering which runs nationwide events for female and regional Year 9 and 10 students to inspire them about the engineering profession; showcasing it’s diversity, creativity, and most importantly that it is an avenue to making a real difference in the world. Jillian also started Machinam which develops innovative mathematics resources for high school students.

Jillian has a Bachelor of Civil Engineering and is currently in the final stages of completing her PhD at Queensland University of Technology.