Science and Technology

Education discipline wars and missing ‘E’ in STEM

A leading QUT education researcher is warning of “discipline wars” among educators trying to lift Australian standards in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields – with engineering facing defeat.

QUT Faculty of Education’s Professor Lyn English is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and a leading mathematics educator from preschool to Year 10.

Professor English said tackling the STEM ‘crisis’ was a global concern but questioned if education authorities had, in fact, addressed each discipline.

“To date, the STEM acronym has been used largely in reference to science, with less emphasis on the remaining disciplines, especially engineering, which links all the disciplines,” she said.

“Engineering shapes our world yet we are neglecting it, especially in primary school education.

“Young children are natural engineers. They design, they build, and they use their maths and science understandings to solve the myriad engineering problems around them.

“But we are overlooking these capabilities.”

Professor English presented her argument at the 2016 Australian Council for Educational Research Conference held in Brisbane at the Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Conference speakers and delegates discussed:

  • Australian students’ decline in mathematical and scientific ‘literacy’
  • The decline in STEM study in senior school
  • A shortage of highly-qualified STEM subject teachers and
  • Curriculum challenges for Australian educators.

Professor English implements STEM learning experiences, which include a focus on engineering design, across Years 3 to 6.

She said examples including constructing earth-quake proof buildings and a ‘Fancy Feet’ project investigating feet and shoe characteristics followed by designing and making your own shoes, proved popular with students and teachers.

She said engineering concepts now feature within the new Design and Technologies Curriculum, which received inadequate attention in primary school.

Professor English said latest results which ranked Australian students internationally, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), indicated that over the first 12 years of this century, Australian students’ levels of mathematics and science literacy have declined significantly.

She said this was in contrast to a number of other countries showing improvement.

In a recent report, Professor Geoff Masters, chief executive of ACER, warned that Australian students were not adequately equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills required for work and life in the 21st century.

“Sowing the seeds of STEM early, in all STEM, is needed if we are to fully implement National STEM School Education Strategy,” Professor English said.

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