STEM crisis threatens Australia’s business future Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Opinion piece, orignally published in the NT News, by Chris Lugg FIEAust CPEng NER, President Engineers Australia, Northern Division

Engineering underpins every aspect of our lives and is embodied in virtually every product or service used or consumed by Australians, as it is engineers who transform ideas into practical and commercial realities. Innovation, the process through which new ideas are adapted to create economic, social and environmental value, is the bedrock of the engineering sector. Alarmingly, Australia ranks poorly on the World Economic Forum Innovation Index, an index that ranks the world’s countries and economies through innovation measures and outputs. Australia is ranked only twenty-third overall, twenty-fifth for innovation capacity and seventeenth for availability of engineers and scientists. This is concerning for our nation’s business sector as industry is dependent upon innovation of goods and services.

Maths and science are the tools engineers use to solve real-world problems and turn ideas into practical realities. And, research increasingly shows that innovation is driven by workers with training and expertise in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) disciplines. Participation in STEM subjects at school is, therefore, vital to the engineering profession and Australia’s innovation future. Thus, it is concerning that Engineers Australia’s analysis shows that there continues to be a significant and prolonged drop in the take up rate of STEM subjects in schools. For example, the Engineers Australia report Engineers Make Things Happen: the need for an engineering pipeline strategy shows that in 2011, 15.9 percent of boys studied Advanced Maths, but this dropped to 11.5 percent by 2015. And, the percentage of boys studying Intermediate Maths dropped from 38.6 percent in 2011 to 28.4 percent by 2015.

The reasons for this drop in the take up of STEM subjects are complex and varied. In my experience, one of the reasons behind this trend is fear of failure. I am quite saddened when I hear stories of bright young people being steered away from STEM subjects at school because ‘they are too hard and you might fail’.

Unfortunately, ‘failure’ is becoming an increasingly dirty word in broader society, including in our education system. There is a growing tendency for parents and educators to shield children and adolescents from failure, else they will suffer and may not recover. The reality is that failure is probably the greatest teacher we have. The truism 'success taught me nothing, failure taught me everything!' recognises that setbacks and mistakes are necessary for us to learn and achieve as they help create memories that stick, so that we don’t repeat the same errors.

If we continue to shield our young people from disappointment, setbacks and mistakes, we will deprive them of valuable learning opportunities. I am seriously concerned that this often well-meaning, but misguided and ultimately deleterious tendency, is becoming more deeply entrenched in Australian homes and schools. It can manifest itself in the avoidance of anything difficult and that which does not deliver immediate results or instant gratification. I believe we have a crisis on our hands in primary and secondary education in Australia when the take up rate of STEM subjects is dropping. Predictions that follow this alarming trend indicate that there will be increasingly fewer Australian new secondary school graduates capable of studying engineering. The negative effects of the declining take up of STEM subjects are already showing, with a current shortage of trained and experienced STEM teachers in the public system and the lack of STEM educated students entering tertiary level teacher training.

Compounding this issue is the proportionately low number of female students studying STEM subjects, with less than 7 percent of girls studying Advanced Maths, less than 6 percent of girls studying Physics and only 16.5 percent of girls studying Chemistry at secondary school. This low number of female students studying STEM subjects at school is reflected in the alarmingly poor gender-balance in the engineering profession, with women representing only 13 percent of engineers in Australia.

Australia’s business sector urgently needs the trends raised here addressed, as our economic future relies upon innovation. Recommendations include empowering our young people to become more resilient and less afraid of failure; implementing policies to encourage more students to study STEM subjects at school to build the technical foundation for our innovation future; identifying why girls’ participation in STEM subjects is so low and implementing programs to correct this trend; developing more specialist maths and science teachers; implementing policies to encourage more Australians to complete engineering courses; implementing strategies to retain engineers in the profession; aligning policies and programs that foster innovation with the education and training requirements necessary to become an engineer; highlighting the role of engineers in turning ideas into practical realities with social, economic and environmental value; and, committing to long-term and stable innovation policies and programs.

Image: stock image.