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What to look for in a school’s STEM program

STEM is a significant growth area in education right now. Science, technology, engineering and maths were once specialist subjects pursued by students with a specific interest in these fields.

Now that technology influences so many diverse areas of our lives, STEM is viewed as an essential curriculum area for all students.

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STEM teaching is part of Australia’s national curriculum, so it will be on offer in some form at every school. Beyond the basics, however, schools vary greatly in the facilities and expertise they provide.

The national STEM strategy in action.

In 2014, the Office of the Chief Scientist presented a strategy for excellence in STEM education and research across Australia. For schools, it recommended a multi-layered approach incorporating inclusive and engaging classrooms, well-qualified and responsive teachers and industry partnerships. When choosing a school for your child, consider posing the following questions at your next open day or interview.

Questions to ask your school about STEM

  • How recently were the facilities built or updated?

Schools need to be responsive to the rapidly changing nature of STEM. Funding may not always provide for new buildings, but tools like computers, software, lab equipment or textbooks become obsolete quickly in the rapidly changing world of technology and science.

  • What subject areas are covered?

A sophisticated STEM program will offer a full complement of distinct subjects, such as biology, physics, chemistry and maths. As we often hear though, the careers our children pursue may not have been invented yet! Skills like critical thinking, inquiry-based learning and creativity are as important in STEM as equations and the scientific method, and teaching approaches should reflect this. Inclusive teaching is also a sign that your school understands the broader importance of STEM education. Ask about girl/boy ratios in STEM classrooms to ensure girls are encouraged to participate. STEM teaching should also be offered at a range of levels so that all students have exposure to scientific literacy, not only the advanced or keen learners.

  • What extracurricular activities are supported?

Schools with lively STEM programs offer extracurricular activities in the spirit of making STEM exciting and providing extension opportunities. Examples include robotics clubs, Lego clubs, participation in state or national maths competitions or science showcases presented to the local community.

  • What is the expertise and background of the teaching staff?

Ideally, teaching staff in STEM areas should have qualifications in the specific subject they are teaching, rather than being generalists. Beyond this, some schools make provision for staff to acquire post graduate qualifications in their fields, take leave to participate in research projects or take industry placements.

There are countless benefits to students when a combination of ‘real world’ expertise and higher learning is brought to the classroom.

  • What industry linkages are available?

Schools are increasingly looking to linkages with industry or higher education providers to enrich the learning experience for students. Some Australian students currently access work experience placements at the CSIRO, field trips to NASA, traineeships in aviation and mentoring programs with mining corporations.

Schools may also invite experts for speaking engagements or residency programs, providing inspiration and a sense of connectedness to STEM contexts outside the classroom.

For future success and wellbeing, our children will require lifelong interest, engagement and literacy in science and technology as well as the ability to innovate and adapt to change. Ask your school about its vision for drawing these skills together.

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