STEM in the classroom. Photo: Shutterstock

STEM education programs for school-age students have become “little more than amusement” after being diluted to fit into “siloed” academic curricula, a new analysis has warned, while noting students actively pursue STEM-related careers if engaged effectively.

Fully 77 per cent of the 1 million students participating in its targeted educational programs subsequently changed their career motivation to a STEM-related field, Re-Engineering Australia (REA) notes in a new report that found “most STEM programs today comply with few of the guiding principles of STEM and have become little more than amusement value for students.”

Such programs are “heavily focused on entertainment to showcase STEM rather than promoting understanding and achieving academic goals,” REA found, blaming the issue on educators “reverse engineering STEM into an existing siloed education curriculum.”

REA – which runs school-years programs such as F1 in Schools, SUBS in Schools, Space in Schools and the “extreme STEM learning” 4×4 in Schools – said students respond strongly to broad and deep programs shaped by work-relevant STEM skills and soft skills.

“These programs deliver outcomes that create a transition in student (and teacher) capabilities so profound that they don’t just change a person’s knowledge base,” the report notes. “They change them fundamentally.”

Fully 51 per cent of students completing the programs said they were more interested in studying higher levels of maths as a result, while 60 per cent became more interested in studying science subjects, and 85 per cent improving their educational attainment across most learning areas.

This level of engagement confirms that current school-years STEM teaching is falling short of what is required to stoke a lifelong interest in STEM subjects – and that includes both interest in technical areas and the cumulative development of soft skills such as collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving.

Jobs based on soft skills are expected to account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030 – but such skills need to be a consistent part of the curriculum from early on, REA’s analysis found, by linking schools with industry, TAFE, universities, and parents “in a collaborative and experiential environment that has a demonstrated capacity to instil innovative capability very early in their years at school.”

Engage industry earlier

By getting involved early on, REA argues, industry can foster students’ love of STEM and shape the skills pipeline before students finish school and university, rather than simply complaining – when it’s too late to change them – that graduates aren’t job-ready.

“The once clear separation between what the education system teaches and what is learned once at work no longer exists,” the report notes, adding that the studied career intervention programs “provide an educational bridge between the traditional pillars of education and delivery of the hard and soft skills that industry seeks.”

Students who participated in the STEM programs “exhibit the ability to make the linkage between industry, career opportunities that fit with their skills and passions, and the roles they can play in their future,” the report notes.

“Industry needs to make a sustained effort to provide contact between students and role models, and access to knowledge about careers, to have a lasting impact on the next generation.”

The findings come as educational authorities embrace Australian Curriculum 9.0, an update of the national schools curriculum that restructured maths teaching, “reduced and realigned” primary-years science teaching, and overhauled digital technologies teaching.

An Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) review found even the new curriculum is struggling to teach STEM, with 63 per cent of respondents saying the revised maths curriculum content has not been “refined, realigned and decluttered” compared to previous versions – and 50 per cent saying the same about the new science content.

With overall feedback that “there is still too much content” or that “the curriculum needs to be further decluttered to achieve better learning outcomes for students”, ACARA highlighted the curriculum limitations called out by REA – which believes new collaborations will help bridge the gap.

“To meet the requirements of an ever-changing educational environment,” its report notes, “it has become crucial to provide approaches to help teachers offer education in the classroom in new ways that aid the development of skills that will facilitate student transition to the world of work.”

Pieter Danhieux, CEO and co-founder of security firm Secure Code Warrior, strongly agreed, noting “the IT sector could benefit greatly from more effort to promote STEM disciplines at the high school and university level, especially to those who are underrepresented in these fields”.

“It is so important that everyone feels welcome to pursue a great career in tech, and visibility is key,” he said. “I’d also love to see more education around the enormous range of specialisations that exist.”