A primary school STEM program for all - Education Matters Magazine
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A primary school STEM program for all

The first three years of primary school provide a critical window of opportunity for teachers to engage students in positive learning experiences in STEM. During this time, it’s essential that students have equal access to quality STEM education, with opportunities to learn, develop, and thrive – according to experts at the University of Canberra.

Australia’s current STEM education outlook isn’t strong. In fact, the latest data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows, for the first time in the assessment’s history, that Australia has fallen to the OECD average level in mathematics performance. And while STEM occupations are growing at twice the rate of non-STEM occupations, the hardest jobs to fill are in STEM-related fields (skilled trades, engineers, technicians, and IT).

Essentially, Australia’s STEM-education position highlights the significant gap between the demand for STEM skills and the academic outcomes of Australian students. For teachers and school administrators, this begs the question: what can be done to help students have positive STEM learning experiences, develop STEM skills, and build confidence with numeracy into the future?

One potential solution is the ELSA: STEM in Schools program, being developed by world- leading education researchers at the University of Canberra (UC). The project is led by Centenary Professor Tom Lowrie, the Director of the STEM Education Research Centre (SERC) at UC.

Professor Lowrie was also a co- creator of the much-loved Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF). The core philosophy underpinning the program is ‘STEM for all’ and the program aims to ensure students have access to authentic and contextual STEM experiences, irrespective of where they live.

“The program will be accessible for every child—regardless of gender, cultural heritage, socio-economic status (SES) or experience— and actively include those children in vulnerable, geographically-isolated, and non-traditional-learning communities who have often been excluded from STEM education opportunities,” says Professor Lowrie.

The latest data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows, for the first time in the assessment’s history, that Australia has fallen to the OECD average level in mathematics performance.
Professor Lowrie says the ELSA: STEM in Schools program will feature play-based activities — both digital and analogue — designed specifically for each year level.

The history of the ELSA Program actually dates back to 2016, when Professor Lowrie’s SERC team won the Australian Government’s open tender to create the Early Learning STEM Australia Program for preschool-aged children.

The first ELSA Pilot rolled out to 100 centres across the country in 2018, with more than 400 educators and 3800 children taking part. Following the success of this pilot, the program was extended into 2019; and then, in 2020, the SERC team undertook a research project to determine the program’s efficacy.

The results of this research project showed significant performance gains in both STEM learning and numeracy for the children who participated in the ELSA Program for one year.

For STEM literacy skills, children improved at a rate three times higher than children not involved in the Program. In terms of numeracy, the children improved at a rate twice that of children not involved in the Program. The ELSA Program also helped those most at-risk for lower mathematics understanding achieve the largest gains in numeracy performance.

These promising outcomes prompted the Australian Government’s Department of Education to award further funding to the SERC team to develop a similar STEM-based program for the first three years of primary school. And so, ELSA: STEM in Schools was born.

“We’re developing this program to increase the participation of Australian students in STEM education, to give them confidence, and to boost their STEM skills in the early primary school years,” Professor Lowrie says.

“The ELSA: STEM in Schools program also provides a tangible mechanism for our researchers to share the most up-to-date, evidence-based STEM-education approaches directly with practising teachers.”

ELSA’s digital tools collect student’s STEM literacy data, and report this data back to teachers, without time-consuming formal assessments.

The ELSA: STEM in Schools program is currently being developed in preparation for the pilot in Term 1, 2024, with an expression of interest opening on 14 August 2023 to all Australian primary schools. The program will focus on content from Foundation year, Year 1 and Year 2 of the Australian Curriculum, with close alignment to learning outcomes for the relevant STEM-discipline curricula, as well as ACARA’s Numeracy Learning Progressions.

The program will provide students with the opportunity to explore an online, play-based learning environment, delivered through a series of digital tools that are rich in STEM concepts. The digital activities will focus on developing spatial reasoning and logical reasoning skills, because spatial reasoning is the best predictor of whether children will end up in a STEM-related career.

Students will be able to complete the ELSA activities on any computer or hand-held device with a web browser. And, like its predecessor, the ELSA: STEM in Schools program will balance digital games with teacher-led, hands-on activities that can be completed in the classroom or the playground.

In fact, only one-third of the program will take place on digital devices — limiting screen time but also giving students the opportunity to experience STEM scenarios that would be very difficult for teachers to reproduce in a real-life classroom setting (such as the perspective of a bird flying over the roof of the classroom).

Importantly, the digital tools will collect student’s STEM literacy data, and report this data back to teachers, without time-consuming formal assessments.

“The ELSA: STEM in Schools program will also be beneficial to teachers, with a comprehensive professional development course designed to increase STEM knowledge, teaching capacity, and confidence in teaching STEM,” Professor Lowrie says.

The program’s philosophy of ‘STEM for all’ has also informed its primary objective, which is to increase children’s engagement and interest in STEM, leading to a significant and substantial national improvement in STEM literacy in the early primary years.

“We are very much looking forward to working with Australia’s primary school teachers to foster that confidence in STEM and a love of STEM in our youngest students,” concludes Professor Lowrie.

To find out more about the ELSA: STEM in Schools program and expression of interest, visit: www.elsaschools.edu.au

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