23 December 2014

students in the class room students in the class room
Image: Students in the class room.
Photo credit: Professor Lyn English.
Image: Students in the class room.
Photo credit: Professor Lyn English.

Improving the nation’s skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) is the focus of a new ARC Discovery Project funded in the most recent ARC major grants funding round (for 2015).

Professor Lyn English, from the Queensland University of Technology, is the lead Chief Investigator on the new $603 900 project. Professor English will collaborate with colleagues at the University of Tasmania to introduce a new approach to promoting learning across grades 3–6 through modelling with data.

Professor English, who spoke at the November announcement of the ARC major grants, said the project was in line with the Australian Government’s calls for educational reform in the STEM disciplines.

Professor English drew on comments made earlier this year by Education Minister, the Hon. Christopher Pyne MP, when he said that we need a ‘robust, relevant and up-to-date Australian curriculum’ that is ‘content rich’ and focusses on the important  ‘21st century skills of critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving, creativity, analytic reasoning and communication’.

“This new projects builds on the work I’ve been doing for the last few years in engineering education where students are linking maths and science to solve engineering based problems,” Professor English said.

"Students from third grade to the end of sixth grade in Brisbane and Tasmania will undertake investigations involving modelling with data to develop their capacity to make informed choices on complex societal and environmental issues."

The project will focus on inquiry processes involving data variation and uncertainty within STEM-based contexts and aims to develop the important mathematical and statistical literacies needed for lifting student achievements.

In advancing both theory and practice, it is hoped the research outcomes will contribute to knowledge of primary students’ capabilities for STEM problem solving and ways of enhancing implementation of the Australian Curriculum.

Professor English drew on the example of problem solving in the environment and the specific case of a school playground. Students may be asked to consider how STEM comes into play when redesigning a playground.

As part of the process students conduct an investigation collecting data and evidence to support their reasoning. They may also be asked to draw on various aspects of STEM and consider impact. For example:

  • In mathematics—how far apart is the equipment? Is it too high?
  • In science—is the vegetation appropriate?
  • In engineering design—consider the constraints, such as space; student population; and funding.

Students will then be asked to consider how their findings may be adapted and applied in the broader environment.

“All of these investigations are drawing on core content knowledge from mathematics, science, engineering and technology and developing processes and critical thinking.

“We are trying to develop young students’ capacity to make informed choices on complex societal and environmental issues.”

This particular project comes at a time when there is great focus on the need to boost STEM education. Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb has led this charge supported by industry and business leaders.

A 2013 report on international comparisons of STEM1 included a key finding (9.5) on science and mathematics teaching in primary schools and the need to improve provision levels along with teacher training.

Professor English said one of the important focal points and outcomes of her research is resources for teachers and an enhanced national curriculum.

“We develop comprehensive activities which we share with the Australian associations of teachers in science and mathematics; those resources are very valuable in the national curriculum,” she said.

Professor English’s research project was one of 665 ARC Discovery Projects sharing in $250 million and will commence in 2015.

“I’m dedicated to producing rich outcomes to support the wonderful work of the ARC and to enhance the STEM learning within primary schools,” Professor English said.

For more information about this research project please contact Professor Lyn English.

1. STEM: Country Comparisons, International comparisons of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education Final Report.