Turnbull to give preschoolers AU$8m to build STEM skills

The federal government has allocated AU$8 million of its AU$110 million STEM funding to help children aged three to six gain skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to encourage interest in pursuing careers in those sectors.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced an AU$8 million initiative he hopes will give 350,000 preschool children "a head start" in their careers.

Under the latest funding, Little Scientists, a not-for-profit initiative of FROEBEL Australia; and the Smith Family's Let's Count program, will both receive AU$4 million. Both initiatives target children aged three to six years old by building on their curiosity for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

"From seeing how to purify water to exploring and talking about numbers, these initiatives will give children access to fun and engaging ways to learn," Turnbull and Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham, said in a joint statement.

They added that both programs provide young students with a new way of engaging with STEM subjects which will help underpin Australia's competitiveness in the future.

"Of our 600,000 workers in ICT, more than half work outside the traditional ICT sector," Turnbull said previously. "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."

The AU$8 million for Little Scientists and Let's Count builds on the AU$6 million already committed for the development of apps to engage children in STEM in their early years.

With almost AU$100 million pledged by the government in December to help students embrace the digital age and prepare for the jobs of the future under the government's AU$1.1 billion National Science and Innovation Agenda, STEM has become a political battleground.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also previously highlighted the importance of STEM education in schools and universities in Australia, pledging a total of AU$2.5 billion for future jobs, with a focus on STEM, as well as a AU$17.8 million startup initiative he hopes will drive a new generation of innovators, risk-takers, and wealth-creators.

Last month, the Office of the Chief Scientist published the first national STEM Programme Index (SPI) to give schools access to a list of more than 250 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs available to students.

The guide [PDF] features businesses, universities, government departments, and community-led initiatives catering for primary, secondary, and university students at state, national, and international levels. Some of the initiatives included are competitions, excursions, and online activities for in-class, after school, and holidays.

StartupAus, Australia's startup advocacy group, said in November that it wants to boost the country's innovation ecosystem by introducing a "Lemonade Day" to primary school students in an initiative that would see children own and operate their own venture, by way of a lemonade stand.

The initiative came out of the federal government's now-canned Policy Hack, and outlined solutions such as the lemonade stand initiative, saying it will boost Australia's innovation economy.