STEM-savvy students - Education Matters Magazine
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STEM-savvy students

Dr Jane Hunter of the STEM Education Futures Research Centre discusses how an increased focus on STEM in the early years of schooling is preparing a generation of switched on students ready to tackle the STEM subjects in their secondary years.

While it is fair to say that the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) conversation has mostly revolved around secondary school education in Australia, there has been increasing recognition that activating interest in the STEM disciplines needs to start from the early years of schooling. Primary school students recognise that the STEM subjects they are taught using student-centred pedagogies provide them with opportunities to develop team working, problem solving and mastery skills. Principals, teachers and primary school communities are crucial for activating their students’ enthusiasm and academic interest in the STEM disciplines.

The Australian Government’s Office of the Chief Scientist has been relentless in creating a sense of urgency to advance societal knowledge in STEM since 2012. Central to these calls to action are beliefs that too few students are taking high levels of Mathematics and Science in secondary schools; too many STEM teachers are either unqualified to teach the disciplines well or are in an ageing cohort; and that efforts to maximise end-of-school results by taking STEM subjects may come at the expense of higher Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) scores.

New research
Two studies conducted in NSW public schools over the past three years have demonstrated that when primary school teachers integrate the STEM disciplines using the High Possibility Classrooms pedagogical framework they foster inquiry, project-based approaches and design thinking. These studies were part of several large-scale research projects designed to build teacher capacity and confidence in the STEM disciplines. Thirty-seven teachers and 1000 students from eight primary schools in diverse communities in Western and South Western Sydney participated in a series of focus groups across a 10-week period.

STEM was viewed by these primary school students as preparation for secondary school and broader career choices. There was recognition that their teachers were building their knowledge for possible future career options. And, for the majority of girls, seeing how STEM linked across the disciplines facilitated more autonomy and self-direction.

Findings from the studies demonstrate that students aged 5 to 12 years old develop more enthusiasm for content knowledge in STEM subjects, have a greater willingness to experiment and engage in hands-on learning, and are more readily able to see the benefits of being part of an effective team to solve complex problems when their teachers actively integrate the four disciplines. In particular, as primary school students come closer to attending secondary school they have strong beliefs about what they like and don’t like about STEM, and what they regard as their favourite STEM experiences.

What do primary school students like about STEM?
Students’ responses fell into four distinct areas: the most common theme was teamwork; this was followed by the opportunities that STEM provided for making and building using hands-on approaches; next, it increased their opportunities to make friends with other students in the same year group; and last, they liked using the real equipment of STEM (e.g. digital thermometers, water-testing kits, microscopes and circuitry boards). When questioned more about hands-on approaches, students explained that it gave them a sense of the scale of things, and they liked using recycled materials as this was a way of being resourceful, and building or creating something that wasn’t there before. The social aspect afforded by STEM learning and working in larger class groups was significant; this comment was typical:

“I like that we get to make friends during the process of making the machines – being in a new group that we have not worked in before. Making new friends when we focus on STEM is great,” says Kikki, aged 11.

What don’t they like about STEM?
Although the older primary students were generally much more vocal about what they liked about STEM, when asked about less-positive aspects they would describe frustrations in what they were doing or trying to ‘master’, rather than the nature of the subject matter itself. Typically, they said there was never enough time do STEM: “I didn’t like packing up. We only just got started… teachers don’t make enough time for us to do this kind of work.”

Favourite STEM experiences
These primary students offered varied responses when asked what were their top STEM lessons. There was the repeated liking of building chain reactions and constructing the Farmbot style devices and simple circuits. One student described the simple video she made of a circuit; another created a page-turner, while others referred to the tooth brusher device. Expressions of joy and creativity were common responses, for example: “Working with the circuits – complex but great fun. Being able to see how electricity was created and being able to fix things to make them work.”

Final remarks
In most Australian primary schools, teachers are deemed generalists in that they are required to teach at least six key curriculum areas. The integration of STEM subjects is therefore not reflected comprehensively in school reporting.

Its relegation to weeklong sessions, small projects, or a series of single lessons acts as a major impediment.

What is clear from this recent research on STEM in NSW primary schools is that there is a whole wave of enthusiastic, capable and independent students who are STEM-keen as they anticipate high school. It’s now up to secondary schools to carry that motivation and engagement forward. Our STEM-savvy primary school students are expecting it.

“When we go on to high school and when we do group activities or engineering activities, we know how it will work and how to work together and how to do research… that gives us a head start,” says Sandra, aged 12.

Dr Jane Hunter is a former primary and high school teacher. She is currently conducting a series of funded research studies to build teacher capacity in STEM and STEAM in NSW, ACT and Victorian schools. Her work reinforces the importance of teacher professional learning and building teacher capacity through ongoing school-university partnerships. The pedagogical framework featured in her recent book Technology Integration and High Possibility Classrooms: Building from TPACK is leading change in schools and was developed through deep studies of practice in Australian teachers’ classrooms. Dr Hunter also teaches pre-service teachers in the School of Education at the University of Technology Sydney. In March 2019 she received the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Social Impact in Teaching and Learning. She is a requested academic partner to schools and a regular keynote speaker at national and international education conferences.