The Australian Industry Group (AIG) estimates that up to 75% of the fastest-growing occupation categories require a sound knowledge of the STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Yet student participation rates in these subjects is falling, with only about 10% of students nationally studying advanced mathematics at the Year 12 level last year, according to Engineering Australia estimates.
When it comes to girls, the problem is worse. Girls make up slightly more than half of the Year 12 student cohort but only around a third of those students studying STEM subjects. Alarmingly, the STEM gender gap is now wider than it was in the 1980s, says the AIG.
To increase female participation in these subjects, a different approach is required. Dr John Ainley, principal research fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research, told The Conversation that “The early experience of engagement with science and mathematics is really important.
“The crucial thing is not just to have novel things that catch people’s interest, but novel things that are built on in a sustained way.”
One educator has seen great success with this method. Susan Bowler came to teaching after 20 years in the IT sector. Engaging girls in STEM is her passion and, as she revealed to Education Matters magazine, robotics is her secret.
When Bowler introduced robots into a class at the all-girls Ogilvie High School in Tasmania, “the girls just took to them like crazy, they really, really enjoyed them,” she says. Her after school club RoboSquad United has since gone on to win 24 competitions including four international championships.
Robotics is an excellent teaching tool because it can be incorporated into many different subjects and it utilises project-based learning skills: critical thinking, collaboration and communication, says Bowler.
“Those are things that are not necessarily taught in a standard classroom,” but it’s what makes learning fun, Bowler explains. “They’re happy doing it, they’re working collaboratively, they are learning, they’re having fun, they are talking, and being silly in many cases!”
“I think if you really want to get girls started in STEM, you’ve got to make it creative, you have to make it very open-ended, and you have to put it in a context where they can see the benefit of it,” she says.
Susan Bowler will be presenting at the 2016 EduTech conference, Monday, May 30 and Tuesday, June 1, at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre.
EduTech 2016: STEM and girls – Education Matters magazine, 2016
Lifting our Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) Skills – Australian Industry Group report, 2013
The Decline of STEM studies in Year 12 and Constraints to University Engineering Studies – Engineering Australia policy note, 2015