The challenge of STEM: How do we re-engage students?

Turning Australian students’ poor trajectory in the STEM subjects around is a constant source of debate among educators; two experts from the University of Melbourne offer their perspective.

Science, technology, engineering and maths, known together as the ‘STEM’ subjects, are a vital element of any balanced education.

Not just because they are key to future economic needs, but also because fostering young people’s natural curiosity about how the world works helps them grow and learn in the broadest sense.

But Australia is, at best, treading water and, at worst, falling behind when it comes to STEM education - on almost all measures.

We spoke to two experts from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education about what teachers, schools and education systems can do to turn this around.

Professor Jan van Driel is a former secondary chemistry teacher and the Graduate School’s inaugural Professor of Science Education.

Associate Professor Wee Tiong Seah is a former secondary maths teacher, who is currently researching the sociocultural and conative aspects of mathematics education.

Question: Why are so many Australian students disengaged from science and maths?

Answer: Jan van Driel

Traditionally, we have taught science by giving answers to questions students never asked.

An inquiry based approach means students and teachers work together
An inquiry based approach means students and teachers work together

If the teacher starts explaining something students aren’t interested in, it makes learning much harder. There is strong evidence that you learn much better if you’re motivated to understand it, if you’re curious.

An inquiry-based approach is a good way to turn this around, where questions drive the learning process. Students conduct experiments in response to a question, before the teacher explains the theory. Ideally students and teachers inquire together.

But for many teachers this approach makes them more vulnerable, especially if they’re not very confident in their subject matter. Research shows that without a strong background in the discipline, teachers tend to have safe practices, avoid open questions, and rely strongly on the textbook.

So we need well qualified teachers who have the courage to seek answers they may not know themselves, working alongside their students.

Answer: Wee Tiong Seah

The situation is equally bad in maths, if not worse – teachers, parents and children fear the subject or come to dread it.

There’s a predominant thinking that to succeed in maths you need ‘ability’; you can either do it, or you can’t. Of course that’s not true – anyone can learn maths.

Teacher confidence is a big variable in maths classrooms too – and students can tell if their teacher loves maths or not.

In the East Asian countries that do very well in maths, research consistently shows it is the students’ mindset that makes the difference. They are motivated by valuing achievement.

That’s why it’s useful to look at the conative aspects of learning maths – motivation, mindset and values.

Question: What approaches could help lift science and maths outcomes?

Answer: Wee Tiong Seah

There’s a lot of promise in the Australian Curriculum, particularly in the four maths proficiencies of understanding, reasoning, problem solving and fluency. And the new ‘maths by inquiry’ resource reSolve is very good too.

But when I go to schools some teachers are not sure how to integrate the proficiencies or inquiry into their day-to-day practice.

We need to help them break away from the traditional maths lesson script, which typically starts with exposition, followed by worked examples and then student practising on their own, plus homework after that.

Instead, an inquiry approach turns that upside down. By engaging students with meaningful mathematics tasks, they inquire, problem-solve, make decisions, communicate, and model the real world with mathematics.

Answer: Jan van Driel

Bringing teachers together to share ideas and support one another is also important, within the school or across a number of schools.

The most effective professional development programs include opportunities to apply new ideas in the classroom and then return to a group of peers to reflect and receive feedback. That’s a well-tested, powerful model of professional learning for teachers across the board.

Leadership becomes really important, too. Leaders need to give teachers the resources, support and opportunities to learn and grow.

When it comes to introducing new ways of doing things, small incremental changes are much more effective than sweeping changes. No-one can change their practice overnight.

Instead of flipping a whole lesson plan, for example, teachers could break it down into typical modules and swap just two elements – like offering the explanation after the students have worked with the problem. My research shows this is a much better way to build confidence.

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Question: What STEM practices have you seen working well in schools?

Answer: Jan van Driel

Technasium is a program in the Netherlands that is one of the most impressive innovations I have seen. It wasn’t dictated from above, but initiated instead by teachers and parents and has now spread throughout the country.

Students work in teams to solve real world problems, like recycling waste from a food factory, or improving the user experience of an ‘action camera’. They draw on skills from different subject areas and there is an emphasis on research and design. Teachers from different disciplines work with each other and industry partners to supervise the students.

At the end they present their projects in public spaces, which gives them a real sense of pride.

Answer: Wee Tiong Seah

We need to encourage students to value reasoning, inquiry and other enabling maths attributes, and to feel more confident about the subject.

One of the ways we are trying to do this is by applying the ‘saying is believing’ effect - our tendency to believe what we say to others (regardless of what we really think). This is done through self-persuasive writing exercises.

Students work in teams to solve real world problems
Encouraging more student participation is key to re-engage them with STEM

We’re seeing early positive results from the hour-long intervention in mathematics lessons, and expecting this to last for around six to nine months.

Expressive writing is also used by our colleagues at the Australian Centre for Educational Research in maths classes to help combat maths anxiety, which is another exciting development.

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