06 August 2016
As a scientist and engineer who volunteers with CSIRO’s Scientists in Schools pro gram, I teach science and engineering in Australian and overseas schools as well as indigenous communities.
One of the most rewarding things is to see the faces of children whose natural curiosity and sense of wonder is aroused by the experiments we do together. They want to know why and how the “magic” happens.
I let the children experience for themselves the science behind this magic. They hear sound travel through a cotton string from one cup to another, measure the speed of light and test Newton’s Law with glasses of water.
Looking at these bright eyes, I’m reminded of my childhood in a Chinese southern Siberian village. After a day of farm work, hunting, fishing and collecting tree branches for fuel, I would curl up on a warm bed built on river stones and study mathematics and physics by candle light. While snow fell outside and the temperature plummeted to -47?C, I would dream one day of flying into Space seeking aliens while, back on Earth, there would be no more hunger or tears.
On one of these nights with my younger siblings, I built our first crystal radio out of a semiconductor diode.
After moving to a small city in the same region, we built a door bell using a bicycle bell and tyres for insulation materials and a homemade transformer to change the voltage from 110 AC to 12 DC.
The demolition of my first bicycle would have meant big trouble if my mother hadn’t been so scientifically minded herself. She was a highly-educated dissident from a big city in China. She kept telling me that “science can save the world” and “you came to this world with a mission”.
My siblings and I graduated from universities with engineering, physics and medical degrees. I have not yet explored the galaxies and hunger and tears remain on the Earth, but I still marvel at the possibilities of science. We would expect that today’s children would have better opportunities to study science than I had in my village.
But the truth is that the overall trend in our schools is away from higher-level STEM subject participation, and as a result Australia has failed to keep pace with the highest-performing countries on international tests of mathematics and science.
This leads to fewer school leavers studying hard science in universities. In 2001, 22 per cent of all Australian university students graduated with STEM-related degrees. In 2011, this figure had dropped to 16.5 per cent, compared with nearly 50 per cent STEM graduation levels in China and Singapore.
IT enrolment has also fallen, from 35,000 in 2002 to 15,000 in 2010. This trend is disastrous because digital technology is rapidly creating an integrated world labour market where our children will be competing globally for good jobs.
To make matters worse, girls, indigenous students, students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, and students from non-metropolitan areas are less likely to engage with STEM education and are more likely to miss out on the opportunities that STEM-related occupations can offer.
The opportunities being missed are enormous.
It is estimated that 75 per cent of jobs in the fastestgrowing industries require STEM- skilled workers.
Over the next five years, employment is predicted to increase in professional, scientific and technical services by 14 per cent and in health care by almost 20 per cent.
Lately, however, governments at all levels have recognised the need to focus on STEM education.
Last year a National STEM School Education Strategy was endorsed by education ministers and the government promised to invest around $51 million in new funding to help Australian school students engage with science and maths, to better prepare for the jobs of the future.
An additional $48m was promised to drive STEM literacy across the community and $14m to expand opportunities in STEM for women.
One “magical” federal government program is The Little Scientists. It will cost $4m and reach 350,000 young people across the country, giving children access to fun and engaging ways to learn.
Another is the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) program. PTECH gives high-school students the opportunity to earn a STEM-related diploma, advanced diploma or associate degree and build connections with local IT-industry employers through site visits, mentors and real-world projects.
Students leave school with the skills and knowledge they need to continue their studies or step straight into competitive jobs in the IT industry.
On the other hand, in times of economic downturn, research funding is invariably cut, reducing opportunities for research scientists. Becoming a scientist is a tough and lonely journey.
That journey not only requires hard study, but good luck after graduation to secure one of the few opportunities for research work. The dream of many high-calibre graduates of becoming leading scientists or Nobel prize winners soon perishes.
Many of my colleagues have been forced to switch careers for financial security. Worse, some have ended up working as taxi drivers, cleaners and shop attendants just to provide bread and butter for their families.
This lack of career opportunities in scientific research does not encourage today’s schoolchildren to study science.
I now realise that science alone cannot “save the world”. The right policies and government are needed to make the “magic” happen. Science needs money, and will pay it back to the economy tomorrow exponentially.
Dr Helen Cartledge is a defence scientist, engineer and volunteer with CSIRO’s Scientists in Schools.