Our world is becoming more technological each day. In the last decade, we have seen the birth of self-driving cars, smartwatches, smartphones, artificial intelligence, augmented reality devices and gene editing. With our future leaders growing up in the age of digital innovation, it is imperative for students to learn soft skills of STEM to survive in the workforce later in life.
What is STEM?
Our future will demand workers to fill STEM-related jobs in order to withstand the powerful digital movement. STEM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, but the term does not refer to these subjects specifically. The term refers to what STEM encompasses: Medicine, Marine Biology, Astrophysics, Environmental Science, Technology and so much more. STEM also refers to the soft skills that students develop such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and creativity. These skills can be introduced in the early years of education to ensure maximum academic growth. Initially, students of STEM need to identify a problem and then create possible solutions to that problem, which can be tested. The skills are inquiry-based approaches to teaching and learning.
Why do children, particularly females, need to identify with STEM?
How many children say they want to be working in the STEM fields when they are older? How many of those are female? We do hear some children say that they want to be doctors, scientists or astronauts when they grow up, but rarely do we hear them say they want to be tech-wizzes, mathematicians, website developers or engineers. Research states that half the jobs for our next generation have not even been invented yet. The future depends on how fast technology can advance, which in turn relies on the number of people wishing to work in the fields of STEM.
Unfortunately, creating a STEM identity is becoming harder as current pop culture rarely promotes such characters who are STEM enthusiasts, particularly female characters. Toddlers and young children can easily attach themselves to certain characters they look up to and associate themselves with. The Little Mr and Miss series, which includes famous animated characters such as Little Miss Sunshine and Little Miss Chatterbox, has recently launched a new character, Little Miss Inventor. The book blurb says she is a female engineer and “her brain is full of ideas, which she turns into extraordinary inventions in a shed at the bottom of her garden.” This small action can make a life-changing difference to young girls across the globe by being a positive role model in pop culture. Females in STEM are still substantially underrepresented, which means it is more important than ever to build STEM identities from the early years.
Why implement STEM in the early years?
As young children are natural investigators of the world, STEM happens every day within Early Learning education; whether it is building castles and working out the engineering behind the structures built, cooking cakes and observing the chemical changes that occur during the baking process or a group of children filming a short series of videos to create a story. The focus in Early Childhood Education is on the whole child. STEM is about the integration of a number of disciplines promoting a range of learning dispositions. Educators in the Early Childhood and Primary sectors understand that learning does not occur in isolation; it is a far more integrated and collaborative way of learning that teaches students to be team-oriented and critical thinkers.
Hands-on learning in STEM is vital in order to develop a practical sense of problem-solving skills. For example, a student in a traditional classroom may be tasked with providing a theoretical solution to an environmental issue by creating a poster, yet in a STEM-based classroom, the student would be tasked to design, build, test and redesign if necessary to ensure the student grasps the foundations of engineering. Opportunities to construct knowledge through hands-on STEM experiences are what supports children to further cement positive learning dispositions such as questioning, problem-solving, hypothesising, metacognition and persistence.
Funding for STEM
STEM has only started to rise to the surface in the last five years. The Australian Government allocated $64 million to fund Early Learning and school STEM initiatives under the ‘Inspiring all Australians in Digital Literacy and STEM’ measure. This includes two measures: ‘Embracing the Digital Age’ (school initiatives – $51 million) and ‘Inspiring STEM Literacy’ (Early Learning initiatives – $14 million). At Toorak, we are currently building a Science & Technology Centre that will completely invigorate the STEM landscape at our School.
Along with this, our teachers are advancing their own knowledge and skills in technology. Many teachers are now becoming skilled in technology by becoming Google Certified Innovators (including our Head of Digital and eLearning Mr Phil Carew) or by undergoing regular professional development. It is critical that we have experienced and highly-skilled teachers who will confidently encourage and implement a rich STEM program both in a spontaneous, emerging approach and also through an explicit approach. Teachers need to pose deep questions to extend children's inquiry and critical thinking. By having skilled STEM teachers at the epicentre of a child’s academic journey, the doors can truly open in any direction for our next generations to come.
STEM exists in our everyday life whether we notice it or not. By having our future generations deeply engage with science and technology, our worldly advancements will continue to grow at a steady pace and females will more likely to be empowered to pursue these areas if they have a sense of familiarity with STEM.
Miss Melissa Schoorman is the Head of Wardle House, Deputy Principal of Toorak College.
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