Evolving approaches to STEM pedagogies in Australian Primary Schools: A review of current research

Post by Dr Maree Skillen

It has been identified that Australia needs a STEM capable workforce for the future, and that “the foundations of STEM competence are laid in early childhood” (Caplan, Baxendale & Le Feuvre, 2016, p.11). These same authors highlight the importance and need for “high quality primary school science and mathematics education” (2016, p.7), and a need to expand the skill-base of students to embrace technology and engineering. To support STEM in Australian schools, the Government has committed to improving the skills of young Australians to ensure they can live and work in a globalised world. Innovative programs have been funded with a focus on early learning and school STEM initiatives (Australian Government Department of Education, 2019). These initiatives have been extended to include support for a range of education projects to improve STEM outcomes for school-aged students. Teachers are embracing initiatives to partner with STEM professionals and for now the results indicate teachers are focused on enhancing their teaching practices to deliver engaging STEM education experiences in Australian schools.

Why the continued focus on STEM?

Declining enrolments across STEM subjects has attracted much attention within Australia in recent times. Wood (2017) confers with this decline by referring to the National Scientific Statement which found participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in Australian schools appear to be at the lowest level in 20-years. It is widely recognised that students’ early interest in science begins at primary school; and, the teaching of related subjects at this level is important for fostering skills and interest within students, ensuring they continue to engage with STEM subjects during their transition to senior secondary and tertiary education.

Despite the critical importance of early STEM instruction, findings from Australian research indicate that it has not previously been a strong focus in primary schools; even though the foundation of building STEM competence has been recognised as being best placed in early childhood situations (Caplan, Baxendale & Le Feuvre, 2016; Fitzgerald, Dawson & Hackling, 2013). Reasons for this include a lack of indicative curriculum time allocated to deliver subjects in Australian schools. Prinsley and Johnston (2015, p.7) identify that “Education authorities, industry, universities and others are developing their own approaches and resources for STEM education, in a vast array of disconnected, duplicating and competing programmes”. If managed strategically, STEM can be incorporated more deliberately into existing curriculum and timetabled to provide enriched learning opportunities for all Australian primary school students.

Primary Teachers and STEM Education

Many primary teachers have identified and willingly acknowledged their lack of expertise and confidence to teach STEM content well. Prinsley and Johnston (2015) state that “currently only a minority of Australia’s primary school teachers have an educational background in a STEM discipline”. Added to the apparent lack of STEM qualifications of primary teachers, some reports identify that pre-service and trained teachers did not study science or mathematics to Year 12, or an equivalent level. This was reaffirmed by Abraham, Smith & Skillen (2019) after surveying a group of Western Sydney University (WSU) pre-service teachers to better understand and identify the types of science learners completing the mandatory Primary Science and Technology unit, as part of their Master of Teaching (Primary) studies. A proposed remedy (Rosicka, 2016; Caplan, Baxendale & Le Feuvre, 2016) to this situation is to employ specialist teachers in each school or within a cluster of schools to provide much needed curriculum support in these areas. Other suggestions call for improvements in professional development programs to allow primary teachers greater access to digital or online STEM related resources (Tytler, Symington, Malcolm & Kirkwood, 2009).  There has also been some research into developing STEM skills of pre-service teachers through collaborations with schools, university, and industry professionals.

 Gaps and Opportunities

A number of gaps in current research about STEM pedagogies utilised in Australian primary schools have been identified. Surprisingly, few peer reviewed studies about STEM education were uncovered in this literature review. Furthermore, very few studies have been undertaken in the government education sector despite the high profile of STEM in the media.  It was noted that many studies report on pre-service teacher education programs as a positive step forward; however, follow-up research outlining the success of these programs once a pre-service teacher becomes an in-service teacher are not identified. Research from the period identified for this literature search (ie. from 2008 to 2018), generally focused on the application of a specific model or unit of work in a specific situation. Conversely, research into what is happening in schools has not been collated and peer reviewed. Many articles reported on the lack of competency and confidence of primary school teachers for the STEM disciplines. Steps to increase this confidence and competence have not been formally quantified on an Australia-wide basis.

Caplan, Baxendale & Le Feuvre (2016, p.29) refer to Australia as being “at an inflexion point” in regard to STEM education; and, whilst Australian primary schools and teachers may face challenges there are many exciting opportunities to create a “buzz” about STEM teaching and learning. Some current Australian Government (2019) STEM initiatives to support teaching and learning for students, teachers and schools include: Digital Technologies Hub; reSolve: Mathematics by Inquiry; Primary Connections; Science by Doing; Curious Minds; digIT; STEM Professionals in Schools; and, Pathways in Technology (P-TECH), a pilot program involving the establishment of long-term partnerships between industry, schools and tertiary education providers. These initiatives align with goals outlined in the National STEM School Education Strategy 2016-2026 (Education Council, 2015); and, promote collaboration between educators and industry to ensure students and teachers “keep up with the rapid pace of change in STEM disciplines” (ISA, 2017, p.33). These initiatives and programs also focus towards preparing young people for the jobs of the future.

About the Author

Dr Maree A. Skillen coordinates and lectures in Primary Mathematics education at Western Sydney University.

References

Abraham, J., Smith, P. & Skillen, M. (2019). Types of science learners: What kind are you? Retrieved from https://educationunlimitedwsu.com/2019/08/

Australian Government Department of Education (DoE). (2019). Support for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Retrieved from https://www.education.gov.au/support-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics

Caplan, S., Baxendale, H. & Le Feuvre, P. (2016). Making STEM a primary priority. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Education Council. (2015). National STEM School Education Strategy: A comprehensive plan for science technology, engineering and mathematics education in Australia. Retrieved from http://www.educationcouncil.edu.au/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/National%20STEM%20School%20Education%20Strategy.pdf

Fitzgerald, A., Dawson, V., & Hackling, M. (2013). Examining the beliefs and practices of four effective Australian primary science teachers. Research in Science Education, 43, 981–1003. doi:10.1007/s11165-012-9297-y

Innovation and Science Australia (ISA). (2017). Australia 2030: prosperity through innovation. Canberra: Australian Government. Retrieved from https://www.industry.gov.au/sites/g/files/net3906/f/May%202018/document/pdf/australia-2030-prosperity-through-innovation-full-report.pdf

Prinsley, R. & Johnston, E. (2015). Position Paper: Transforming STEM teaching in Australian Primary Schools. Australian Government Office of the Chief Scientist. Retrieved from https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/Transforming-STEM-teaching_FINAL.pdf

Rosicka, C. (2016). From concept to classroom: Translating STEM education research into practice. Camberwell, Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research. Retrieved from www.acer.edu.au

Tytler, R., Symington, D., Malcolm, C. & Kirkwood, V. (2009). Assuming responsibility: Teachers taking charge of their professional development. Teaching Science 55(2) 9 – 13.

Wood, P. (2017). STEM enrolments hit 20-year low, but scientists have an idea to stop the slide. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-30/science-maths-enrolments-hit-20y-low-but-scientists-have-a-plan/8395798

 

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