STEM economy: Students need to get the basics right

Even though it may be difficult to truly anticipate professions of the future, investing in STEM skills is a safe bet.
Safe bet
Falling behind in a critical race

In this year's federal budget, the Australian Government has included $27.3 million to help students develop STEM skills; focusing on programs to improve teaching and learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

It will be debated whether this level of funding is sufficient, but it is a positive development for Australia to invest in skills that will have higher demand in the future. Even though it may be difficult to truly anticipate professions of the future, investing in STEM skills is a safe bet.

It's estimated, for example, that technology adoption and implementation could lead to an additional 1.2 million new tech jobs in Australia by 2034. In maths alone, an essential skill for most of these tech jobs, the average Australian 15-year-old is 3.5 years behind that in China.

One point should, however, have been more clearly articulated in the budget and the conversations that followed. Australian students' reading, mathematics and science skills are actually declining, according to the OECD's Pisa rankings. The decline has been small but consistent since the country joined the global testing program in 2000.

In September this year, an NSW Education Standards Authority review showed that writing in NSW schools has been neglected and we now have thousands of students struggling with basic writing skills. This shows that unless we can improve literacy outcomes and get the basics right, we won't give our children the best chance of succeeding in the "STEM economy".

The solution is not simple, and it's not only about funding. Engaging young children in reading, writing and maths have always been a challenge and if anything, could become harder given their increased access to technology. As younger learners are more exposed to different ways of accessing and absorbing knowledge, they become more demanding and traditional ways of teaching might seem less attractive. Also, as classrooms digitise, new ways of teaching and learning become a challenge in themselves and students and teachers must also face these challenges head-on.

A survey in May identified that 80 per cent of Australian teachers believed motivation has declined during the COVID-19 pandemic and that they would have to work harder to motivate students back in school.

It's the responsibility of the education ecosystem, from policymakers to teachers, to find ways to engage and reverse the decline we witness in these vital basic skills. This will undoubtedly lead to requests for more public funding for schools. It will, however, also have to include a much fuller understanding of how technology is changing education, what role it has and how the system can adapt.