In 2015, the Federal Government committed an additional 12 million dollars to raise awareness, interest and achievement in STEM subjects across Australia’s primary and secondary schools – STEM meaning Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. So what does this mean for the future of Science Education in QLD? How will our students benefit from the initiative and what can parents do to engage their children in STEM subjects and careers? My guest today is our Senior Chemistry, Mathematics and Science teacher, Mrs. Michelle Muir. Michelle holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Graduate teaching degree in Life and Physical Science from California State University. She has worked with the National Science Teachers Association of America, and has taught at Los Angeles County public school for 6 years. Here in Queensland, Michelle was the Executive Officer for the Science Teachers Association of Queensland and was the Queensland consultant for CASIO graphics calculators introducing technology into secondary schools. Michelle has been teaching Science and Mathematics for 25 years and is an expert in her field. Listen to the podcast. TRACY: Michelle, thanks for joining me. MICHELLE: Thanks Tracy, happy to be here. TRACY: We’re here today to discuss the State Government’s new initiative in Science education – the STEM project. Can you give us an overview of this new initiative and what it is all about? MICHELLE: Sure Tracy. This new initiative, new being 2015, the Australian Government committed and extra 12 million dollars to restore focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and in both the Primary and Secondary Schools all across the country. This is bigger than a previous allocation for Primary connections and Science-by-doing programs. This initiative is to provide innovative Mathematics Curriculum and resources in both the primary and secondary schools and to support the introduction of computer coding across all Year levels in Australian schools. This initiative is really just a highlight and a focus on the need for pursuing more education in STEM subjects in schools. TRACY: So what has caused the steady decline in students taking STEM subjects? MICHELLE: It is not a new problem Tracy, it is steady decline in that students are not as engaged, not as interested in the particular subjects and by not offering hands on and exciting activities in the lower middle school and middle school ages. Those students don’t choose the subjects in Senior School and then they don’t choose them in Tertiary Education as well. TRACY: So we are talking about Science across the board from Prep to Yr. 12? Are the issues Prep to 12 or is the concern more about the final years of schooling? MICHELLE: I think that they are connected. I think that you cannot look at one without the other. So if a student is curious and all students in the younger Years are curious beings, that’s just part of being a young person and I think that somehow that we lose that magic about Science or Technology or Engineering or any other subjects that we are talking about here today. I think that that magic that happens for them early we just need to carry that on and keep that excitement and that initiative going. TRACY: I suppose that is the million dollar question. How do you keep that excitement going? MICHELLE: For me when I am teaching my younger students if they walk out of there excited about what they have seen or what they have just done I think that I have done my job because that excitement leads them to enjoy that subject next year and enjoy that subject into Year 11 and 12 and then pursuing that when they move on to University. TRACY: So in a Science classroom when is a student most engaged? Is it during practical activities, do you find? MICHELLE: Absolutely and those open ended practical activities are the ones that get them really thinking about their topic and sometimes they surprise me by how deep they want to go into that particular subject based on their own interests or their open enquiry into their particular idea that they are looking into. TRACY: So Michelle here at CCPS we offer a number of Science subjects at the Senior level. Can you tell us about how they are taught and what those subjects are? MICHELLE: Currently here at CCPS we have Physics, Chemistry and Biology in Science and then as we are looking at the middle Years we are starting to incorporate coding and more of the robotics and technology within the embedded Australian curriculum that we are offering. TRACY: So, you mentioned coding and robotics: Is this part of the new initiative? MICHELLE: Absolutely. The research has shown that the problem solving skills and the ability to laterally think and to pursue and to come up with a conclusion is all part of coding and if we start that at a younger age level then those students will have those problem solving skills and the ability to use those skills in the future. TRACY: Is there a growing demand for Science graduates at a tertiary level? MICHELLE: Absolutely, and the research has shown that most of our high end graduates are not necessarily from Australian schools. And so that is a concern that we have and when we were looking at higher education we need to say that the students that were pushing through at all levels of education are able if they are interested in those subjects were able to pursue those at a tertiary level. TRACY: So if we were to focus on tertiary education for a moment, which specific fields of science are in demand? MICHELLE: The STEM subjects that the research has shown or identified as job growth in the future is technology in general and so considering that even the simplest or essentially low tech jobs now have some form of digital technology involved that stands to reason. Also there is confirmation that existing resources and alternative green energy that seem to be an area of focus. Security and especially data security seems to be an area of growth. In the near future: nano-technology which is a study in the application of extremely small things, is utilised right across all science fields including chemistry, biology and medical technology, physics – and certainly highlights the need for STEM subjects to be at the forefront of our thoughts. TRACY: It’s a fascinating future that we are entering into and it sounds like science and maths really need to keep up with where we are heading if you like. MICHELLE: Absolutely. And when l think that every job in the future is going to have some form of technology and whether it’s data collection or simply using an iPad for customer service. There are very few jobs in the future that don’t have some form of digital technology involved. TRACY: So you mentioned some of the STEM jobs of the future just before. Can you tell us some of the specific skills that are identified as crucial for gaining a job in the field? MICHELLE: It’s interesting that employers are looking for employees that can problem solve, that can think for themselves and have the analytical skills given whatever the information that they have in front of them and to be able to work within that. Obviously employers are also looking for an employee that’s flexible and are able to work in a team environment and quite often we think of the STEM subjects as being a team effort. You don’t accomplish anything as an individual when you are working in these higher levels. The skill sets that are required needs expertise and what we want from our students is for them to be able to work in a team situation and feel comfortable with that. TRACY: I have heard that said before actually, that this individual competitive world is really not the way of the future. Collaboration and working as a group, these are really important skills. So Michelle what are other schools currently doing to implement the new initiative from the federal government? MICHELLE: So some schools are choosing to offer an engineering and technology course in Year 11 and 12 and some schools are offering Year 9 or Year 10 STEM classes as electives. TRACY: If we look a little bit closer at what CCPS is doing Michelle, how are we implementing the recommendations through our subject offerings? MICHELLE: For CCPS this concern is really not aimed at us because currently in our very small student population, over 55% of our students take at least one senior subject of science and that is not the norm. That is not what most schools are encountering so for us it’s not just about enticing more students it’s about retaining the ones that we have into a tertiary education in those subjects. TRACY: So we are quite well placed then to roll this initiative out? MICHELLE: Our students realise that 55% are taking at least one science subject and almost at least a third of our students are taking more than three senior science subjects so that is a very unusual case. TRACY: Science and Mathematics is a fascinating field. Michelle you have been teaching and studying Science and Mathematics now for 25 years. What is it that keeps you coming back? What is it that interests you most about your subjects? MICHELLE: For me Science is curiosity and answers all in one. It’s the ability to look at the world with new eyes each and every day. For me looking at students who just understood a concept or who understood something that’s in their real world is a wonderful and engaging experience. TRACY: Do you think that there is a lot to discover in Science? MICHELLE: I think that with space exploration and with undersea exploration there is something new around the corner. For me I never get tired of wondering what is next. TRACY: You teach chemistry. What is the new frontier of chemistry? What is yet to be discovered? MICHELLE: I think that the whole nano-technology is just going to be an interesting field. I think that biomedical technology and thinking about how much smaller can we get, I mean cameras used in the medical field now are microscopic and yet we are going to go smaller again so that to me is really fascinating. TRACY: 25 years ago when you worked in the States you identified the need to entice students and qualified teachers into taking STEM subjects. Why was it important to you then and why is it still important to you now? MICHELLE: I think that for me there was no option, when I decided what subjects to take of course it was going to be Maths and Science. But I think that for some students they get to a point and they are not sure if that is the subject for them. I know for myself I had all different sorts of professors and all sorts of different instructors and I never wondered if I fitted into that group. And I never was curious if that was a good fit for me because I knew with those subjects I excelled and I knew in those subjects I was still interested in what was being taught. And so for me when I look at students and I think are they cut out for this, some are absolutely beyond curious beings and are wanting every moment to say ‘but what else miss’. Those students belong in Maths and in Science. TRACY: So Michelle what advice would you give to a student who is interested in Maths and Science an they are not quite sure if they want a career in it but the curiosity is there? MICHELLE: I think that the field is so open and there are so many opportunities and then I look at our current students who are so technologically advanced and so with the ability to pick up something new and try it – I think that is a scientist all the way around. Yes it is a little scary at first but once they get a hold of some new technology, they are not afraid of it, they have no fear of it. And so their ability to say ‘this is something that I can try, this is something that I can do,’ is astounding to me and these students, the ones that have a go and try it, are the ones that are cut out for this new age of Science. TRACY: What can parents do to help engage their children in Science and Mathematics subjects? MICHELLE: That is a great question. I think that parents quite often look at the digital technology and don’t understand it or are a little afraid of it and I think that as long as you are aware what your student is engaging in online or in games or in that technology field, I think that some of those games especially have some value. There are some problem solving games but I think that there needs to be some sort of understanding that technology only goes so far and the hands on enquiry based science is where it is at. So when I look at a student who is hesitant to even tie a knot or play with a magnet or have a go with manipulatives that is an indication that maybe too much screen time is happening. So we need to find a balance between allowing students to use the technology in the way that they want to use it and also using the technology in schools and be aware that if we lose the students’ ability to hand write, if we lose the ability for students to manipulate, to build Lego – my favourite toy of all time because there is imagination, there is creativity. There are also very good problem solving skills going on while playing with Lego, so I think that parents need to look at the time that students are spending online. I think that parents need to look at how many opportunities they have given to manipulate and play with Lego or some other toy like that. TRACY: Ultimately the federal government is trying to encourage Australian students to compete internationally in these important fields so what is the ultimate goal here with STEM subjects and this new STEM initiative? MICHELLE: I think that we are going back to an enquiry based teaching and learning style which means that students are given a problem to solve and given the tools to solve that, and by using tools to research or using expertise from their teachers they are able to open up a whole new way of looking at something and come up with their own innovative new and creative answers. TRACY: Well Michelle I am sure that we will hear more about this as the months and years progress as this initiative is rolled out. Thanks Michelle for talking to me today. MICHELLE: Thanks Tracy it was a pleasure. TRACY: And if you would like to know more information about the STEM curriculum you can visit Queensland government’s education website and go the link on STEM or for more hands on activities for your children visit http://stem-works.com/activities This podcast was produced by Tracy Burton featuring music by Mr Paul Cusick. Thanks for listening. Download the PDF of this transcript.