Stemming a skills shortage

Student Yannick de Silva and Professor Archie Johnston, Dean, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies

Student Yannick de Silva and Professor Archie Johnston, Dean, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies

An anonymous donor has provided a generous gift of $5 million to fund a Teacher Enrichment Academy for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers at the University of Sydney.

The academy’s mission is to build confidence and inspire teachers across Australia in the delivery of education in mathematics, engineering, science and technology. It will achieve this through a multidisciplinary approach drawing on expertise from three faculties: Education and Social Work; Science; and Engineering and Information Technologies.

Teacher participants will also explore cutting-edge discoveries and emerging technologies, and engage with STEM innovations pioneered at the University.

STEM is a concept of increasing prominence in the sphere of education and industry. The acronym has become shorthand for widely held concerns that these subjects are in decline in schools and in the workforce. Fewer students are graduating with qualifications in the STEM fields; and fewer children are choosing to participate in these subjects at school.

Focusing on Years 7 to 10, the academy will offer a multi-day residential program for up to 50 teachers at a time, with the first group set to start in November 2014. Considering that the average high school teacher looks after approximately five classes, the program has the potential to impact more than 80,000 students in its first five years.

In developing the program, the academy will draw on the expertise and experience of academic leaders in STEM education and research, and prominent high school teachers. As demonstrated by successful international programs, instilling teachers with confidence and providing innovative resources is an effective way to encourage higher participation among students.

The University of Sydney’s Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, says the gift comes from the shared passion of a husband and wife determined to help young people consider advanced skills in mathematics, science, engineering and technology as vital to their future prospects.

“Some years ago, the donors were involved in a program overseas that had a multiplier effect: the program’s in-service training of teachers lifted the standard of engagement in the classroom and led to a remarkable and measurable uplift in student engagement in those subjects,” says Dr Spence.

“They now want to create a similar program at home and decided that the University of Sydney – with our tradition of excellence in training teachers – is just the place to do it. They have seen such a program work; they recognised a need in Australia, and knew we could make it work here too.”

Yannick de Silva from Normanhurst Boys High School is a fervent advocate of the University’s STEM program. He was a Distinguished Achiever in the NSW 2013 Higher School Certificate, and has enrolled at the University of Sydney in a combined degree studying aeronautical engineering and commerce.

Recognising that his generation are the future leaders of industry, Yannick shares the broader concern of high school students’ reluctance to study core STEM subjects.

“I know that in the past decade, Australian high schools have seen a gradual decline in the number of students who study science, technology, engineering or maths in their senior years. But I believe these are core subjects that form the necessary foundation to support Australia’s growing technology and engineering industries,” he says.

“The Teacher Enrichment Academy will benefit teachers by encouraging them to engage, fully and confidently, with the STEM subjects. It will help them keep pace with the rapidly changing needs in these fields and be able to guide their students to the fantastic possibilities offered by these subjects,” he says.

Yannick believes the University’s STEM program is a great investment in the future, as it will help to inspire potential pioneers in the science, mathematics, engineering and technology industries.

“If education reform is delivered now, we can expect to see acceleration in the success of Australia’s STEM industries. After all, we are our own future.”

Back in the present, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) keeps tabs on worldwide scholastic performance through its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Every three years it assesses comparative levels of literacy, mathematics and science among 15-year-old students around the world.

The latest results showed that Australia achieved an average score of 504 points in the PISA 2012 mathematical literacy assessment. This is higher than the OECD average of 494 points.

However, 16 countries scored significantly higher in mathematical literacy than Australia, including Shanghai-China (613 points), Singapore (573), Hong Kong-China (561), Chinese Taipei (560) and Korea (554).

More worrying is the fact that in Australia there is a wider gap between the highest and lowest scoring students – a difference of 315 points between the fifth and 95th percentiles, compared to the OECD average of 301 points.

In other words, Australia’s lowest performing students are seriously falling behind.

Education priority

As a key stakeholder in STEM education, the University is already addressing this issue. With the launch of the new academy, even more progress can be made as the University builds on its strong track record of delivering education programs to teachers across NSW.

“The Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies has been contributing to high school curriculum development and teacher training initiatives across engineering, IT and computer science for a number of years,” says Dean, Professor Archie Johnston.

“It is particularly exciting that we can now build on this experience and inspire a team of cross-faculty academic experts that will deliver a world-class STEM teacher enrichment program. Given that 75 percent of the fastest-growing occupations require significant STEM skills, it is vital for Australia to improve our participation in and uptake of STEM subjects at school.”

For the past 10 years, mathematics and science academics from the Faculty of Education and Social Work have provided a range of programs for high school teachers. More than 300 have taken part in accredited certificate courses in primary, middle years and secondary mathematics education, looking at new teaching approaches and strategies to enhance motivation and engagement by students.

The new academy is particularly timely, given the introduction of the Australian Curriculum: Science from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). The new curriculum promotes an enquiry-based approach to teaching science, a greater emphasis on teacher accountability, and a reduction in funding for teacher professional development.

Dr Louise Sutherland, Coordinator Science K-12, is one of the representatives from the Faculty of Education and Social Work who is advising on the academy. Louise taught high school science for 13 years and has been working in teacher education for the past 13 years.

She says the contribution from three different faculties is really exciting.

“The Faculty of Education and Social Work can bring its expertise about students’ learning behaviours, and advise on the use of technology to maximise engagement and learning in the classroom. The Faculty of Science can offer a detailed understanding of recent developments in science.

The Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies can help teachers provide a context for learning by helping them incorporate real-world problem solving examples into their teaching.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to provide high school teachers with the time and support to engage their students.”