In recent years the education community has turned its attention to the decline of participation rates in STEM subjects, for secondary school students and university students alike. A 2013 report by the Australian Industry Group* found that STEM related course completions declined by 58% between 2001 and 2011. Enrolments are also in decline, with Mathematics majors and ICT courses experiencing declines of 15% and 53% respectively in the same period. The number of engineering graduates currently meets only 40% of the industry’s needs and employers are forced to hire from overseas.
The problem seems to begin in high school, a study by John Kennedy, Terry Lyons and Frances Quinn** found that participation rates for most science and mathematics subjects fell between the years of 1992 and 2012.Part of the problem can be attributed to a lack of qualified STEM teachers. Students are becoming disengaged with STEM subjects and the way they are currently being taught and it is difficult for teachers to come up with innovative methods of teaching if they are not confident teaching the subject area to begin with. Very few high-performing STEM students aspire to teaching careers and too many graduating teachers have bypassed STEM altogether. Unsurprisingly, this has led to worrying skills gaps in Australian schools, with 40% of secondary maths teachers not fully qualified to teach mathematics.
So what is the solution? Firstly, the under-qualified teachers need to be supported, with extra resources put into professional development and training to build their confidence and capacity to teach in more engaging ways. This will make a huge difference in terms of student engagement in STEM subjects and inevitably lead to more students carrying on STEM study in their senior years and beyond.
Secondly, in the long-term, the teaching profession has to be made more attractive to high-performing students, especially in STEM subject areas. Many students who achieve high ATAR scores are discouraged from teaching as it is seen as a “waste” of their talents. The status of the profession as a whole needs to be lifted to show the value of our teachers and give our Aussie students the education they deserve.