STEM Education – Building Skills for the Future


As Minister for Education and Training I see first-hand the transformative power of education and how it gives individuals more choice and more opportunity to pursue their interests, their dreams and to secure a rewarding job. However, the path towards this future is not always apparent to young people. Modelling shows how young people cannot always discern obvious pathways to take them from study to employment. They are dealing with constantly evolving technology that is changing work patterns and the economic climate.

This challenge is not unique to Australia – the impact of digital disruption is being felt across the world – but the challenge can be met head-on if Australia’s education system, from the earliest years through to further education, embraces an innovation mindset. Innovation is the best way to keep pace with change.

Price-Waterhouse Coopers warns that without a culture of innovation, underpinned by investment in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, Australia could drop out of the top 20 economies by 2050.

My role, and that of my state and territory colleagues, is to ensure that Australia’s education system keeps up with changing technology so students are prepared to be innovative, flexible and confident in the skills they need to thrive in the future. Building STEM literacy in students today is fundamental to achieving this. Adults are frequently impressed by the way young people intuitively pick up technology. There are plenty of stories about a toddler who is more proficient in using an iPad than their parents.

However, recent Information and Communications Technology Literacy testing through the National Assessment Program shows that around half of students in years 6 and 10 did not meet the proficient standard of their practical understanding of digital technology. What this shows is that it is not enough for children to only be active on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – they also need to be learning how to use computers in a practical sense.

In today’s digital age, children must not only be able to access new technologies, but take full advantage of the vast array of information and opportunities that new technologies make available. That is why the Turnbull Government is investing $112.2 million through the National Innovation and Science Agenda to inspire all Australians’ interests in digital literacy and science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

With 75 percent of the fastest growing industries requiring STEM skills, it is imperative that we enable Australian students to embrace the digital and STEM age. We know that this needs to start from the earliest age. We have initiatives to promote positive science and maths experiences for children aged three to five, including developing an online resource for teachers, parents and students and apps to engage curiosity.

For school students, and the teachers that do such important work to support them, we are offering plenty of support such as cutting-edge professional development for those teaching digital technologies. That is as well as investments in a number of prizes and competitions, and establishing summer schools so that underrepresented groups, particularly girls, discover the potential of STEM.

These new initiatives all add to work that we started in 2014 to restore the focus on STEM in primary and secondary schools, when we earmarked $12 million to highlight the importance of STEM subjects in schools across the country and through updates to the curriculum. This added to the $5 million allocated in the 2014–15 budget for the Primary Connections and Science by Doing programs. The Turnbull Government has also thrown its support behind Code Club Australia through a $500,000 grant to expand its teaching of important computer skills to school children.

Underpinning the Government’s STEM education spend is a National STEM Education Strategy. It was endorsed by all education ministers in December last year and it sets clear goals, with five areas for action to improve STEM education in Australia.

Sparking a real interest or passion for the STEM subjects is just as important as simply teaching students these skills. We need to make the study of these subjects really come alive and show children how far they can go in life with proficiency in these skills. We know that starts when they are young. Drawing on the success of the Early Learning Languages Australia trial, we are developing a suite of play-based apps for tablet devices through Early Learning STEM Australia to get pre-schoolers engaged and curious to learn about STEM.

Our Little Scientists and Let’s Count training programs, which could well inspire Australia’s next Howard Florey or Elizabeth Blackburn, are also giving children a new way to engage with STEM subjects. These programs will reach 350,000 children across Australia. From learning how to purify water, exploring science to talking about numbers, these initiatives offer children fun and engaging ways to learn the basics at a very young age.

Helping students move confidently from school to further study and work is vitally important and the Coalition is not just focused on the early years and schooling; we are looking much further ahead. We need to ensure that the entire education system equips graduates with the skills they need to enter the world of work.

We need to get Australia’s brightest minds into the areas of research that will help solve the challenges of the future. That is why we have planned an ongoing commitment to national research infrastructure so we can take our world-class research from the lab to everyday life. High quality research drives innovation that saves lives, answers social and environmental imperatives, improves economic productivity and growth, and creates the jobs of the future.

Through the National Science and Innovation Agenda we have invested $2.3 billion in new, sustainable funding over 10 years for national-scale research infrastructure, including $150 million of indexed per annum funding for the ongoing operations of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. That ongoing funding from 2017–18 will drive collaboration between 35,000 world-class researchers, government and industry, and support research in areas like food production, health and sustainable cities.

We also want to ensure there are sharper incentives for research funding. We are putting in place new funding arrangements for universities that better balance the incentives for research excellence and partnership with the business community. We have committed an additional $127 million to university research block grants over the forward estimates to encourage university researchers to work with industry and other end-users to produce outcomes with commercial and community benefit. Commercialising research will ensure that publicly funded research addresses Australia’s immediate and future economic, social and environmental challenges.

Through innovation and investment in research and education, we will better prepare future generations of Australians for all of the challenges and opportunities that lie before us. We must inspire children from the earliest years to embrace the all-important STEM subjects and support them to continue this study through school and into further education. It is the only way to create the next generation of researchers, innovators and digitally literate citizens prepared for the jobs of the future.

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Simon Birmingham

Simon Birmingham

Federal Minister for Education and Training, Senator for South Australia at Australian Government
Senator the Honorable Simon Birmingham is the Federal Minister for Education and Training and Senator for South Australia. Simon can be contacted at
Simon Birmingham

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