​Australian government to spend AU$4m on children's STEM 'spaces'

The federal government will be handing out AU$4 million worth of grants for the creation of entrepreneurial workspaces for children across the country.

The Australian government has announced that it will be investing AU$4 million over four years to fund the setup of dedicated workspaces for children across the country to learn science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills.

The Maker Project will issue grants to eligible Australian schools and community organisations to help set up dedicated "maker spaces" that offer students hands-on experience in practical aspects of design, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship, as well as STEM engagement activities.

It is expected that the initiative will offer grants of between AU$2,000 and AU$5,000 to cover the costs of tools, equipment, software, and consumables needed to establish spaces that the government said will be required to encourage experimentation and "tinkering" in a supervised and accessible environment.

Additionally, the initiative is expected to support community organisations with grants of between AU$5,000 and AU$20,000 to expand existing STEM engagement activities and link young people with local experts, inventors, entrepreneurs, and industries.

The Maker Projects initiative is part of the four-year, AU$29.8 million Inspiring Australia science engagement program, which falls under the federal government's AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda, announced in December 2015.

At the time, the government pledged AU$48 million to improve the STEM literacy of students in Australia, along with a AU$51 million commitment to assist Australian teachers and students to embrace the digital age.

The government began its search for new ways of enhancing digital literacy in children in September, opening its AU$4 million Digital Literacy School Grants program to schools Australia-wide with the funds to be used for delivering digital literacy programs to students in "engaging and innovative" ways.

"Schools need to think creatively about how they teach digital literacy to ensure that students don't fall behind or find it difficult to engage," Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham said at the time. "We need all children to be digitally literate to ensure they are ready for a future full of technology."

The AU$4 million 2016 Digital Literacy School Grants will be funded by the AU$51 million teacher commitment kitty, with other initiatives under the banner including the formation of IT summer schools for students in years 9 and 10; an annual "cracking the code" competition for those in year 4 through 12; and online computing challenges for year 5 and year 7 students.

"Sparking an interest in these subjects at an early age is the best way to ensure we increase the number of students taking up science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects to set them up for success after they leave school," Birmingham added.

As previously highlighted by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, the world is facing a global skills shortage. Infosys has also reported that young Australians were ill-prepared for the digital economy that stands before them.

Infosys found that young Australians were the least confident of their technical abilities and job prospects, and while they are highly aware of the need to learn new skills, Australians are also the least interested in improving their STEM knowledge.

Less than a fifth wanted to develop data skills, build mobile apps, or learn how to code; even fewer -- just 3.41 percent -- had a desire to work for a startup over a large company.

According to Rob Hillard, managing partner at Deloitte Consulting, the issue Australia is facing when it comes to preparing for the "workforce of the future" is the ambiguity around what those jobs will actually be.

"The problem is we're dealing with tremendous ambiguity, and ambiguity creates uncertainty in the minds of students and is absolutely a turn-off to people going through STEM pathways and finding these jobs of the future," he said previously. "And that creates a huge amount of fear for students today."

He did say, however, that Australia's workforce does not need any more job-ready graduates, but rather those who are "future ready".

"Graduates who are capable of learning, because the jobs those graduates will be doing, even just a couple of years into their careers, have not been invented yet," Hillard said.

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