The necessity of school-industry partnerships for the future of STEM
It’s irrefutable that STEM skills are the way of the future. TAFE courses, internships and Ai Group’s Higher Apprenticeships provide a number of STEM pathways to young adults looking to gain trade qualifications or experience in the form of an internship or apprenticeship. However, there is a notable lack of STEM education in Australian schools, meaning many children are not exposed to STEM as a viable study and career pathway.
Instead, only those children who have already demonstrated an interest in STEM or are in a ‘gifted and talented’ class are likely to pursue further training and education in the field, which means an insufficient talent pool for the STEM workforce of the future.
Even today, Australian businesses are experiencing significant skills shortages and recruitment difficulties in many STEM-related occupations, with the most affected jobs being technicians and trade workers (41%), professionals (26.6%) and managers (26.3%).
This is made worse by problems in the pipeline from schools and universities into the workforce. While the government has been investing in increasing school student participation in STEM, only 10% of students are actually pursuing STEM-related studies. There is also a drop in the number of secondary students going into certain branches of mathematics, reflecting a lack of engagement among students and resources available to teachers.
So, what can be done to get more students into STEM?
Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel believes there is a greater need for synergy between schools and industry, commenting: “Schools are the principal means by which we instil these skills and interests in our children; but it is industry that understands the interplay between the cutting edge of science and our everyday world”.
Therefore, we need to connect students with industry experiences as part of the school STEM education pipeline, supporting student access to further education and skilled jobs.
Efforts towards increasing school-industry partnerships
In 2016, The Ai Group launched the Strengthening School-Industry STEM Skills Partnership Project to trial different methods of collaboration and engagement between schools and businesses. The advantages of such a collaboration are clear, as elaborated upon by Alan Finkel:
“Industry can help to build the enthusiasm of students, teachers and parents by providing examples of real world problems that young people would love to solve. Businesses can contribute content and context to the principals, lead teachers and academics who are developing contemporary curriculum resources. They can offer their staff to help teachers directly or indirectly, as preferred by the teachers. They can work with intermediaries such as universities and TAFEs to supply contemporary content or technology that can be incorporated into teacher professional learning.”
For example, if students were asked to research how to stop plastic waste entering our oceans in a traditional classroom, they would present a poster to the class and discuss why they opted for that particular situation. In a STEM classroom, on the other hand, the students would design, build, test (and re-design, if needed) a solution. Critical thinking, engagement and resilience are needed in the STEM classrooms and workplaces of the future, which Ai Group sought to explore in the Strengthening School-Industry STEM Skills Partnership Project.
The pilot project report identifies three models of school-industry engagement:
Single school – single company;
Multiple schools and multiple companies and university; and
Multiple organisations – schools, governments, peak industry bodies.
A total of seven schools (six secondary and one primary) participated in the various pilot projects. A wide range of STEM industries were represented by the participating companies, including agricultural/horticultural science, building, media production, food production and medical science.
The areas covered by these partnerships included design and cabinet building project, media promotion of vaccinations, breeding tomatoes, design of a new confectionary item for children, contamination in laboratory environments, game design and robotics, and construction of a greenhouse to support a school garden.
The projects undertaken by the students reflected the kind of learning that should be supported in a STEM-focused classroom.
The strengths and weaknesses of each engagement model were analysed in the report, as seen below:
Findings and solutions
Ai Group’s pilot project and accompanying report shed light on what can be done to promote school-industry partnerships.
Firstly, change needs to be implemented in the form of greater professional development of teachers. Certain misconceptions seem to persist around what STEM actually entails, and how it can be adopted into the school system. Specifically, development opportunities for teachers could include better knowledge on integrate maths and digital technology into the curriculum, or integrated other subjects into a STEM-based curriculum
Student access to STEM was also identified as a challenge, with a lot of STEM programs only being designed for gifted and talented students instead of the student body as a whole. Additionally, many STEM programs take place after school, requiring a high level of parent availability and commitment.
The link between STEM education and Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector also needs to be reinforced, as many students wrongly believe that STEM education is only for those who wish to go to university.
Finally, greater resources for schools and industry are also needed to truly promote collaboration. Once all these measures are adopted, young Australians will have a better understanding of STEM, allowing them to meet challenges that don’t yet exist.
For those who have already left school, further training and skilling opportunities are still available. Find out more about our Higher Apprenticeships here or contact us directly to speak to an expert.
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