STEM education gains over AU$110m in Turnbull's Ideas Boom

The federal government will invest more than AU$110 million to equip young Australians with STEM and digital technology skills, as well as creating further career opportunities for women in the STEM sectors.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The federal government has pledged AU$51 million in a bid to help students in Australia embrace the digital age and prepare for the jobs of the future, along with AU$48 million to inspire science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) literacy, and AU$13 million to encourage women to take up roles in the STEM sectors.

The five-year cash injections form part of the government's AU$1.1 billion commitment under its National Innovation and Science Agenda unveiled on Monday.

The AU$51 million will include 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 7 students.

Teachers will also receive assistance with access to online support for preparing digital technology-based curriculum activities.

Speaking at the CSIRO Discovery Centre in Canberra, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that he is committed to ensuring that students in the country have the skills to find high wage and rewarding jobs regardless of their qualifications or chosen career path.

"We're going to do this by promoting coding and computing in schools to ensure our students have the problem solving and critical reasoning in schools for the jobs of the future," Turnbull said.

"We cannot future proof ourselves from change -- nor should we seek to do so -- but we can ensure that our students are graduating with the skills and the agility to identify opportunities and embrace risk."

As part of the AU$13 million allocated towards pushing more women into STEM roles, the government will support the expansion of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot to cover more science and research institutions; establish a new initiative under the "Male Champions of Change" project; and partner with the private sector to celebrate female STEM role models.

The SAGE pilot launched in September, with the government reporting that over 30 research bodies are already involved. SAGE will assess and accredit the gender equity practices and policies in Australian science organisations. It will also drive change to see more women involved in such sectors.

According to the government, 55 percent of STEM graduates are female, but only one in four IT graduates and one in 10 engineering graduates are women.

It said women occupy fewer than one in five senior researcher positions at universities and research institutions in the country and account for approximately one quarter of the overall STEM workforce.

"We want to be a national culture of innovation, of risk takers, because as we do that, we grow the whole ecosystem of innovation right across the economy. As we become more experienced, more innovative, more agile, and more prepared to take on risks we become a culture of ideas because it is the ideas boom which will secure our prosperity in the future," Turnbull said.

The prime minister said that by unleashing the innovation and imagination in Australia, we can usher in the ideas boom, which he said is the next boom for Australia.

"Unlike a mining boom, it is a boom that can continue forever and it is limited only by our imagination," he said. "I know that Australians believe in themselves and I know that we are an imaginative and creative nation and inspired, lead, incentivised, we will have a very long ideas boom."

The AU$48 million funding for STEM literacy under the new agenda comes as no surprise, with Turnbull placing a focus on the idea even before he came to power in September.

In February, during an opening speech at a National ICT Australia's event, he called for the country's schools to introduce IT skills to children as young as five years old; he made a similar point in May when he admitted that education has gone backwards, revealing the numbers of students taking up STEM learning has dropped significantly.

"Of our 600,000 workers in ICT, more than half work outside the traditional ICT sector. 75 percent of the fastest-growing occupations require STEM skills, but only half of year 12 students are studying science; that's down from 94 percent 20 years ago. That is really a retrograde development, and we have to turn that around," he said at the time.

Last week, the Senate Economics References Committee made a number of recommendations on how to best tackle the future of innovation in Australia.

One of the recommendations in its final report [PDF] Innovation in Australia was that the government place due focus on the education system and acknowledge the importance of the interplay between the STEM subjects and the humanities, social sciences, and creative industries.

"While the significance of the sciences to innovation can hardly be overstated, especially in relation to the core STEM subjects, it would be equally unwise to overlook centrality of the arts, humanities, and social sciences in a future-oriented innovation strategy," the report says.

"The jobs and industries of the future will depend on a workforce that can harness the wide-ranging skills that are fostered, collectively, by the sciences, the arts, mathematics, and technology."

According to Nicky Ringland, co-founder of Australian startup Grok Learning, a solid STEM understanding is vital whether it comes to fighting climate change, making the next blockbuster movie, or unlocking the secrets of the universe.

"Australia is facing a massive skills shortage," she said in October. "There will be 100,000 new jobs created in the technology industry over the next decade, but fewer than half that number of students will graduate from technology degrees.

"The future of Australia will need to be agile, innovative, and creative but if we can't source and support the local talent there's no way we can achieve this."

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