Compulsory STEM ‘masks the real problem’ - Education Matters Magazine
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Compulsory STEM ‘masks the real problem’

Two leading educators have told Education Matters that the key to engaging high school students with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is through teachers, and have called for a greater focus on professional learning.

Executive director of the Australian Mathematics Trust, Mike Clapper, said making the study of mathematics compulsory to Year 12 sounds attractive, but masks the real problem.

“Students are disengaged with mathematics as currently taught,” he said. “This is not surprising, because 40% of high school maths teachers are not fully qualified to teach mathematics (which means that, with the buying power of wealthy schools, the problem is far worse in socio-economically deprived areas, where in many schools there is not a single qualified maths teacher on the staff). Forced participation will simply exacerbate the problem of teacher shortage, so we need to look at this a little more deeply.

“As a first step, we need to support these teachers, putting money and resources into professional development to build their capacity to teach in an engaging way, opening up students’ minds to the power and the possibilities of mathematics.”

President of the Australian Science Teachers Association (ASTA), Robyn Aitken, said surveys have shown that the teacher plays a significant role in influencing students pursuing science careers.

“Supporting teachers through resources and professional learning is critical if our teachers are to remain relevant and able to reflect the nature and issues of our changing world in their teaching and ultimately increase student engagement in science,” he said.

“Teachers are change agents. Their influence on student interest and passion for specific subjects, including science, is well documented. Our teachers must remain relevant and able to reflect the nature and issues of our changing world in their teaching and ultimately increase student engagement in science. A greater focus must be given to providing routine teacher professional learning.”

Professor Ian Chubb AC, Australia’s Chief Scientist, has backed Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s push for compulsory maths and science in Australia’s high schools.

Pyne will use Friday’s Education Council Meeting to push for mandatory STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects for all Year 11 and 12 students.

In a statement Professor Chubb said he supports the initiative without reservation.

“I have been saying for a long time that Australia needs to approach science and mathematics much more seriously than we ever have, and that these subjects should be part of every child’s education,” he said.

“We live in a world utterly reliant on science to fuel its industries and provide for its people. In the future, science will only become a bigger part of our lives, and the impacts will touch us all.

“We need therefore to equip as many of our future citizens as possible to understand how science works, its methods and its ethics; and to be able to make better informed judgements.

“The best way to achieve this is to start early in schools, raising the overall level of science and maths literacy in the community and giving those students with the talent and passion for these subjects the preparation for rewarding careers – some in science and some not – but all with better understanding.”

Studying maths and science is currently not compulsory for Year 11 and 12 students in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT. Students in Queensland and South Australia are only required to undertake one compulsory semester of maths during their final two years of high school. In the Northern Territory, maths is compulsory in Year 11, and Tasmanian students have to pass a basic unit called ‘Everyday Maths’.

Last year Professor Chubb released his recommendations for a strategic approach to science and its related fields in a report entitled Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future.