Innovation committee recommends teachers get schooled on STEM

A House of Representatives committee has made 38 recommendations to the federal government, aimed mostly at better equipping teachers with STEM skills.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

A House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training has recommended that the Australian government pay particular focus to the nation's education system if it wants to ensure a future workforce that is digitally capable.

The Inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy report produced 38 recommendations for the government on how to tackle a future-ready workforce, most of which are centred on building science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills throughout all levels of education in Australia.

In its report [PDF], the committee recommended that the government work with higher education providers to increase the quantity and quality of the STEM graduates from higher education, and similarly implement better teacher training to ensure they are equipped with the knowledge to pass onto children.

The committee wants to see the development of a STEM Reference Panel to drive strategies for strengthening STEM at all levels of education, and also give the CSIRO and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation a mandate to develop a pilot STEM role model program for teachers in the country.

Another recommendation is that the government allocates its funding with insight into proportions of teachers with STEM qualifications, as well as locate where STEM-based subjects are being taught by those not trained in STEM, and phase out those teachers from teaching STEM-related subjects over a five-year period.

However, where a teacher is not well versed in STEM, the committee recommends the development of an online credentialing and incentives system for teachers to enhance and update their STEM knowledge.

The committee also suggested that universities engage closer with primary and secondary schools to ensure the training is there for future teachers.

In its report, the committee revealed that it is concerned participation in STEM education at the secondary school level has declined significantly over the past two decades, particularly for female students, and is equally concerned that Australian students' mathematical literacy skills have been in general decline.

The sentiment has been long echoed by reports from technology companies with a presence in Australia, such as IT outsourcing company Infosys, which reported last year that 50 percent of young Australians believe their education did not prepare them for what to expect from working life.

In response, the committee said it wants to appoint a STEM specialist at each school and bring back the requirement for students to study mathematics to receive an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR),

Outgoing Intel Australia managing director Kate Burleigh previously said, however, that the ATAR process is hindering the nation's challenge of getting more students involved in STEM, as being less confident in mathematics may cause a student's university admission rank to fall below their true capabilities in their chosen career.

Where universities are concerned, the committee wants STEM courses to include a business or entrepreneurship unit and see non-STEM degrees also touch on business, statistics, technology, or entrepreneurship-related themes.

Similarly, the committee recommended that universities allow academics to take unpaid leave to pursue the commercialisation of their research.

According to committee chair Andrew Laming, the inquiry and report comes at a time when there is a nascent but promising innovation ecosystem in Australia. In his foreword, the LNP member said the quantity and quality of university STEM graduates is dependent on the quality of STEM education in schools. He also said he is concerned over the long-term consequences of the "decay curve" when it comes to a student's STEM adoption.

The committee said the stumbling block is the lack of adequate incentives for teachers to teach specialty STEM subjects, noting also that 40 percent of year 7 students who attend maths classes around Australia are taught by somebody other than a maths teacher, and that in regional and remote areas there are many schools where there are no qualified maths teachers.

"This evidence suggests a disconnect between the employment realities of being a teacher and expectations about the ability of non-specialist teachers to adequately teach STEM subjects in schools," the committee wrote in its report.

"It paints a picture of a system that is out of balance and exhibiting signs of stress because non-specialist teachers are unable to keep pace with the need for STEM teaching in schools."

Minister for Arts and Communication Mitch Fifield previously said that if the country wants to have a real culture of innovation, it needs to have creativity at the heart of the STEM agenda, joining others in requesting the letter A, for arts, be added to the abbreviation.

"[We need] to put an A into STEM: We need to start talking about STEAM," Fifield said, as quoted by the National Association for Visual Arts in its submission to the committee.

"Because if we want to have a culture of innovation, a culture of creativity feeds directly into that."

Late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is also quoted as having said "technology alone is not enough -- it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing", back in 2011 when unveiling the iPad 2.

As a result, the committee said it is drawn to the idea that governments have to start thinking about the education system as an ecosystem that begins in primary school.

The committee also recommended that the government include industry representatives on all panels that award funding for scientific research; and that the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council develop a cost-neutral mechanism where industry collaboration and commercialisation are incentivised.

The innovation mid-mortem was referred by the Minister for Employment, Education and Training Simon Birmingham, who asked the committee to inquire into and report on matters that ensure Australia's tertiary system -- including universities and public and private providers of vocational education and training -- can meet the needs of a future labour force focused on innovation and creativity.

It followed the federal government's AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda, unveiled in December 2015, which included a AU$110 million investment in STEM to train students for the "jobs of the future".

"Australia is falling behind on measures of commercialisation and collaboration, consistently ranking last or second last among OECD countries for business-research collaboration," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at the time. "Our appetite for risk is lower than in comparable countries, which means Australian startups and early stage businesses often fail to attract capital to grow."

The inquiry was originally announced in February last year; however, when Turnbull dissolved Parliament the following May, the innovation probe lapsed.

Picked back up in November, the Standing Committee on Employment Education and Training modified its predecessor's terms of reference, which included a renewed emphasis on public and not-for-profit incubators and accelerators, doctoral training practices, and opportunities for generating increased economic activity through greater collaboration between publicly funded research agencies.

The Senate Economics References Committee also weighed in on the innovation debate, offering the federal government five recommendations back in December 2015 on how to tackle innovation.

The recommendations focused mainly on the reworking and stability of existing policies and procedures that impact innovation, as well as the importance of education in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and STEM.

The Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training also recommended that the Australian government drive improved access to talent through a more streamlined "startup visa".

Although the report follows the abolition of Australia's 457 visa in April, no further details were provided in the report on what the startup visa should comprise.

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