Australia to develop STEM education plan any month now

Education ministers decide the time is right to drink the techno-Kool-Aid

Australia's Education Council met today and decided the nation needs a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) plan.

The Council's members are the nation's education ministers, one apiece from the federal government and the eight States and Territories. The Council had this to say about STEM in its communiqué (PDF):

“Ministers discussed initiatives relating to the participation and performance of Australian school students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

STEM skills are essential in creating and turning new ideas and inventions into lucrative, internationally competitive Australian products, services and exports. STEM studies also develop generic skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and creativity, which are used in a variety of occupations and are important to increasing Australia’s productivity.

Ministers agreed to collaborate nationally in developing a STEM school education strategy for increasing STEM participation in schools. Senior officials will report back to Ministers on the strategy later in the year.”

What to make of this? On the face of it, this is good news although the “later in the year” timeframe is worrying because it does not suggest swift or decisive action.

But it's also just a little disingenuous that the Council has now decided it needs a STEM strategy.

To understand why, consider that when the current government came to power, the first national digital technologies curriculum was ready for sign off by the Council. To be fair, that curriculum is big on the T in STEM and only touches on the S, the E and M. But the digital technologies curriculum has still not been signed off, because the government launched a review of the national curriculum that focussed on other subjects and suggested strongly that digital technologies did not need a standalone subject.

A $3.5m pilot for coding in the curriculum did get the green light, which was nice, but hardly a systemic approach to the topic.

I mention that pilot because it shows the government knew about at least part of the STEM crisis it has now (re)discovered quite some time ago. Indeed, it's hard to imagine it would have had to go far to get the STEM message at the time it initiated the curriculum review.

As it happens, Australia's federal opposition recently made STEM and startups the centrepiece of its economic plan. Having the Education Council consider STEM neutralises the issue neatly.

But let's get back to that fuzzy timeframe, because it surely introduces the possibility of further delays to the delivery of something that actually makes a difference in classrooms and eventually in the jobs market. At a guess, whatever the Council does now will suggest new ways to train teachers to deliver STEM courses, plus programs to better engage students. Teachers will say they need more resources. Schools will demand more funding. This will all take time and the digital technologies curriculum's STEM-ified heir won't appear for many months or hit classrooms any time soon.

Politically, however, the issue will have been animated. Noisy lobby groups will be silenced through engagement. And when you, dear readers, try to hire a coder, or an actuary, or an engineer, you'll still think it might just be easier to bring someone in from overseas. Or just offshore the job. ®

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