Budget 2017: STEM education in rural Australia gains AU$30m

AU$24 million will fund STEM and health scholarships for regional students, while AU$6 million will be used to trial digital apps to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children's literacy.

The Australian government has announced that it will provide AU$24 million to establish a Rural and Regional Enterprise Scholarships program targeting the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields of study.

Beginning this year, around 1,200 scholarships worth AU$20,000 each will be gifted to students undertaking undergraduate, post-graduate, or vocational education and training qualifications in "priority fields of study", including STEM and health.

The government added that it will provide another AU$5.9 million over four years to trial the use of digital applications to improve children's literacy in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The trial will be undertaken during 2019 and 2020 across 20 preschools throughout Australia in an effort to close the gap.

The government similarly announced in March that it would be investing AU$4 million over four years for the "Maker Project" to enable children to learn STEM skills.

The project will give grants of between AU$2,000 and AU$5,000 to schools and community organisations to set up designated spaces for practical STEM activities, as well as providing them with experience in design, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship. The grants will allow these spaces to provide tools, equipment, software, and consumables.

Grants of between AU$5,000 and AU$20,000 will also be given to community organisations to expand their existing STEM activities.

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 then opened its AU$4 million Digital Literacy School Grants program to schools Australia-wide, with the funds to be used to deliver digital literacy programs to students in "engaging and innovative" ways.

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.

Last week, Australia's Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security Alastair MacGibbon told ZDNet that cybersecurity and STEM education needs to be a life skill that children grow up with in classrooms.

"For me, being a successful person in my generation was being able to read and write and do basic maths. What is going to get our kids to be successful in this world is the concept of computation, coding, and communication," MacGibbon told ZDNet.

"If people are self selecting out of having an interest in subjects like maths and science, then we're narrowing the gene pool available to us that we need not just in government but in business to protect ourselves -- and frankly we're probably narrowing our skillset for the average citizen to be protecting themselves."

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