by LYNETTE VERNON 

As the Australian government grapples with COVID-19, one of its biggest challenges has been finding enough skilled workers trained in science, technology, and engineering to identify and service the needs of the sick, and to protect the population from community transmission.

The root cause of Australia’s declining STEM workforce is the consistently low numbers of students graduating from high school with the prerequisite mathematics skills to tackle STEM subjects in university. This was borne out in last year’s poor OECD mathematics scores and despite calls from successive chief scientists for both schools and universities to set the bar higher; “in the past, universities sent signals to students through course prerequisites, particularly for mathematics….Today there are far fewer prerequisites, even in courses where an advanced knowledge of mathematics is essential.… Students [and school leadership teams] select their courses with an eye to a number…Rightly or wrongly, they absorb the message that the way to boost their ATAR is to drop down a level in mathematics” (Finkel, 2018, p.8).

Universities have long been coping with underprepared high school students’ by providing bridging courses – which only serve to lengthen degrees – or providing mathematic pathways to up-skill students for particular university courses, alongside the provision of resources to support mathematics literacy success.

These mathematic pathway programs and support will play a critical role in increasing the domestic student STEM pipeline to and through tertiary education, especially for universities that stand to lose international students due to the pandemic.

Importantly, such interventions also ensure the tertiary pipeline includes STEM training of pre-service teachers.

Many Australian schools, particularly rural and disadvantaged schools, do not have mathematics teachers with STEM-specific qualifications. It is extremely difficult to engage students and develop their mathematics competencies if your primary teaching subject area is not in mathematics. Unfortunately, little has changed since Professor Chubb’s plea for “science and mathematics… to be so compellingly well taught that students will want to study them”.

Even after $12 million (2014–2016) was allocated to enhance the training of STEM teachers, we do not have enough teachers qualified in mathematics to light the STEM spark and keep it burning for through secondary and into tertiary study.

In Western Australia, only 10 per cent of Year 12 students in low socio-economic status (LSES) schools enrol in the higher-level mathematics they need to cope with STEM content at university. And the cycle becomes self-fulfilling. If students don’t choose high-level mathematics in Years 11 and 12, then schools (mainly LSES and rural) won’t be able to attract experienced maths specialist teachers as, ultimately, those teachers covet senior-level classes.

Mathematics literacy issues are further compounded when poorly prepared rural and LSES students opt-out of university STEM because they see the bridging mathematics courses as in some cases too costly because of up-front fees and extended course time. Mathematics units underpin all science-based courses, yet they are often considered too difficult – recent research highlights low levels of retention and success for university STEM students who have not studied high-level mathematics.

With COVID disruption, opportunities exist to adopt innovative on-line mentoring programmes such as Mathematics Pathways to STEM, where university students tutor Year 12 students in high-level mathematics, which may inspire the next generation of students and fulfil the “incredible promise of our times”.

As Australia comes to grips with the need for a highly-skilled STEM workforce to reboot the economy during the post-COVID-19 reconstruction phase, schools, universities and Australia’s next chief scientist need to make sure the M remains as one of the main structural pillars of STEM.

Dr Lynette Vernon, School of Education, Edith Cowan University and National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University. l.vernon@ecu.edu.au 


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