Home » Andrews » Speeches » Keynote address at the 2nd Annual STEM Education Conference

Keynote address at the 2nd Annual STEM Education Conference

Sydney NSW

27 July 2015

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It’s a great pleasure to speak with you about a subject I’m so passionate about.

I am positive there are many people here who share my passion and will have much to say about how best Australia can tackle the STEM challenge.

That, of course, includes my fellow speakers for this session and I’d like to acknowledge:

  • Dr Alex Bannigan—Conference Chair and Women in Engineering Manager, University of New South Wales, and
  • Professor Hugh Bradlow, Chief Scientist, Telstra Corporation.

I’d also like to offer my special thanks to all the teachers who have taken time out of their busy schedule to be here today.

It’s a measure of your commitment to the STEM cause and underscores the pivotal role you play in driving STEM education.

Today I’d like to firstly discuss how important STEM is in a modern economy, and talk a little about the jobs of the future, and what this means for our year 12 kids looking at choosing further study options.

We need to ensure their priorities align with their future career opportunities.

Secondly, I’ll talk a little about what we’re doing as a Government to ensure science is at the centre of our industry policy, and the consultation that is currently underway in regards to the Government’s response to the Chief Scientist’s STEM paper.

Thirdly, I’ll touch on the activities underway in the Education Minister’s portfolio around boosting STEM in schools and teacher education reform.

And in conclusion, I’ll talk about industry and the research sector and how we need to boost the commercial returns from research, and get industry more involved in inspiring the minds of our future STEM professionals.

Our modern world runs on STEM.

It’s hard to imagine how we would have reached our present stage of development as a nation or how we can make further progress without STEM playing a leading role.

At the risk of saying the obvious, much of what we use in our daily lives and the living standards Australians enjoy today are a product of STEM.

At home, at work, in public places, we are surrounded by STEM products.

With the flick of a switch—or the click of a button—rooms light up, screens beam images and voices from around the world to our homes and offices, meals are cooked within minutes or the critically ill receive lifesaving treatments.

Today, while the students you teach are users of these and other innovations—email, mobile phones, text messages, Facebook and so on—the Government also wants them to become the makers of tomorrow’s innovations.

We want more young Australians to get the STEM foundation that will enable them to become agents of future scientific and technological breakthroughs.

We also want to make sure, you the teachers, have the support and resources you need to nurture the next generation of the STEM workforce.

The ready access to new technology that facilitates work and enriches life shouldn’t lull our nation into a false sense of satisfaction and complacency.

We shouldn’t be taking for granted a lot of the innovation that is at our beck and call and relegate ourselves to being a nation of users and adopters.

We must remind our young people that those who invented and produced these technologies were once students like them.

They may have done nothing out of the ordinary while studying STEM subjects, but by applying their STEM skills, they were able to come up with some brilliant ideas.

Ideas that were later turned into highly sought-after innovative global products or solutions to problems faced by humanity.

It is also important for students, parents and the community to understand that the future job prospects of young people lie in STEM.

Most of the fastest growing occupations in Australia—some 75 per cent—require STEM skills.

In the past decade, the bulk of job growth has occurred in industries such as health care, scientific and technical services, biotechnology, information and communication technology, and advanced manufacturing.

Projects like SKA, which Australia is co-hosting and is the largest and most capable radio telescope ever to be constructed, will boost demand for hi-tech, hi-skill jobs in fields such as ICT and data analysis, which require STEM skills.

The students who pursue a STEM career don’t have to work for someone else because STEM skills inspire not only innovation, but also entrepreneurship.

This is something Questacon is trying to inspire through its Maker Project, which focuses on creative thinking in developing ideas, using simple tools and materials, and advanced technology such as 3D printing, robotics and materials science.

Through these hands-on workshops, the project offers kids an opportunity to explore the innovation process using science, maths, design and technology.

But Australia has much work to do in the STEM space.

Employers are saying they find it hard to recruit people with the skills needed for STEM-based occupations.

Compare this with professions in the legal field where there’s a chronic over-supply of graduates, with Queensland Law Society labelling this as a job crisis.

Australia has about 35 law schools whereas Canada, a country with some 50 per cent more people, has only about 16.

Victoria’s Chief Justice Marilyn Warren said in April that the nation’s law schools were producing 12,000 graduates each year while the US, a country with ten times Australia’s population, produced 45,000 law graduates.

However, a law degree still provides an above-average chance of securing some form of employment even if it does not involve the practice of law.

A recent PWC report estimates if we convinced just one in a 100 people to shift to STEM roles over the next 20 years, it could increase GDP by $57.4 billion.

There needs to be a culture change in what our society values—a change towards STEM, with a focus on students like those that may have chosen law in the past.

We need to get this right for the future of our economy because ultimately, industry wears the outcome of a workforce that isn’t STEM literate.

Some countries have been doing this better than Australia and this is making their industries and economy more competitive and productive.

Despite our rich history of inventions and technological innovation, Australia lags behind other OECD countries in terms of the number of students studying STEM subjects and how STEM interacts with industry to turn ideas into innovation.

Much has already been said about the reasons for this, including at the inaugural STEM Education Conference last year.

Australia’s Chief Scientist has also been sounding the alarm bells and telling us how this is putting our competitiveness at risk.

I’m pleased everyone now agrees it is time we focused on the solutions.

The Australian Government is doing just that.

We know Australia’s future prosperity and economic growth will rely on science, research and innovation—and the foundation for that is STEM skills.

That is why even in these tough fiscal times, we’ve maintained our $9 billion plus investment in science, research and innovation in this year’s budget.

But simply putting money into science isn’t enough. We must also ensure this investment generates the maximum possible returns.

To do that, we must have a critical mass of people with STEM skills.

That means having more Australians studying STEM subjects across the education spectrum and following through to take up STEM careers.

The Chief Scientist, in his 2014 paper STEM: Australia’s future calls for a long-term strategic approach to STEM that focuses on Australian competitiveness; education and training; research; and international engagement.

The Government has listened and is taking the necessary action.

We’ve established the Commonwealth Science Council to advise the Government on strengthening our science capability.

The council, chaired by the Prime Minister, brings together eminent Australian scientists and business people to help ensure Australia’s science and research efforts are targeted to deliver the best results for the nation.

One of its first actions was to look at how the issues the Chief Scientist raised in his 2014 STEM paper could be addressed.

In April, the council agreed that a draft government policy on STEM be developed to respond to the Chief Scientist’s recommendations.

The outcome was a discussion paper, Vision for a science nation, released by Minister Macfarlane and Minister Pyne last month.

In it you will find information on much of the work we’ve already started—the Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda, the Entrepreneurs’ Programme and initiatives in the education sector to help strengthen our STEM capacity.

The paper also asks what more we can do and where the gaps are.

What this paper is also about is to generate a national conversation.

A truly national approach must involve all of us.

We all have a stake in improving Australia’s STEM capability—business, industry, researchers, teachers, venture capitalists.

So we’ve been holding consultations around the country this month.

We want to know what people have to say about STEM and how we can all work together to develop the best plan for our country.

I’ve been to the majority of these consultations and I was encouraged by how fervent and productive the discussions were.

Without pre-empting any policy direction, the importance of encouraging early STEM education and more female participation in STEM have been among the key issues raised.

In my school days, female participation in STEM careers was not looked upon approvingly, even though I went ahead to become a mechanical engineer.

The boys in my class at college were encouraged to go for STEM careers.

I was discouraged from pursuing an engineering career despite my performance in maths and science comparing favourably with that of the boys.

I graduated with an engineering degree from QUT with only one other girl in my cohort.

Nearly four decades on, perceptions of such gender demarcations in careers remain, despite the progress we’ve made.

It is important Australia is able to nurture and tap into the entire pool of STEM talent in its population if we are to realise our full potential as a science nation.

The discussion paper is available on science.gov.au and I encourage you to provide your views, if you haven’t done so, before submissions close on Friday.

While a STEM policy is under development, the Government is pursuing measures in the education sector and beyond to meet our STEM needs.

The Government understands that the building blocks of STEM capability start at an early age.

It’s why we are investing $12 million over the next four years to improve the focus on STEM subjects in primary and secondary schools.

This funding will help develop innovative maths resources for teachers and students and enable computer coding to be taught across different year levels.

It will also enable us to pilot an innovation-focused Pathways in Technology Early College High School program in Geelong.

The successful P-TECH model, which IBM was instrumental in establishing in the United States, brings businesses into high schools to help students develop the academic and practical skills needed to succeed in the jobs of the future.

Student participation in STEM summer schools will also get a boost, with a focus on engaging female and disadvantaged students, including Indigenous students.

The Government will provide funds to support travel and accommodation for the summer school participants.

It’s expected that these will kick-off in January, so I’d encourage you all to keep an eye on the Department of Education’s website for further details.

This investment builds on the Government’s funding for the Australian Academy of Science’s Primary Connections and Science by Doing programs.

As many of you will know, these programs aim to get kids involved in science at an early age and maintain their interest as they progress through high school.

STEM in schools is the primary responsibility of the states, but like so many other issues, STEM education doesn’t respect jurisdictional boundaries.

It’s why the Government is leading a national effort through the COAG Education Council to advance a national STEM in school education strategy.

This would lead to joint national action to increase student participation in STEM subjects, and is expected to be ready by the end of the year.

Among the issues to be considered are the possibility of increasing the extent to which STEM subjects are compulsory at senior secondary levels and improving the collection and reporting of data on STEM participation.

Now, let’s talk about you—the lynchpins of STEM-in-school education.

There’s nothing more valuable in education than a teacher who can bring out the best in their students—and I know that is what you all strive for.

The Government is committed to giving you the support you need in that quest.

We are working with state and territory governments, universities, independent schools and other partners on several initiatives to turbocharge STEM teaching.

One of these is a national literacy and numeracy test for teaching graduates.

This will give effect to the requirement that teacher education entrants have literacy and numeracy skills broadly equivalent to those of the top 30 per cent of the adult population.

The Government has also tasked the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership to strengthen course accreditation for teaching.

This is in response to the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report, which recommends significant improvement to the content and delivery of teacher education in Australia.

The aim is to make it very clear to universities as to what they need to include in each course to ensure new teachers have the knowledge and skills to succeed in the classroom.

The work we’re doing with the states and territories is also very important.

It will strengthen initial teacher education, improve teaching workforce data, and ensure the selection criteria for teaching courses include personal characteristics and academic capability suited to a course.

As part of our teacher education reform, universities will be required to make sure primary school teachers graduate with a subject specialisation, with a focus on science, maths and a language.

This will boost the number of primary school teachers with a STEM specialisation and improve the skills available in all schools for teaching science and maths.

Some state governments have begun looking at their own STEM strategies to ensure there’s adequate STEM teaching capacity.

For example, this year will be the first year in which Queensland students must have done science and maths to enrol in a teaching degree.

A great initiative and I’m very interested to see if this will translate into higher participation in year 12 for the maths and sciences.

Research adds to our understanding of the world and to our competitiveness as a country. Through its higher education and research funding programs, the Government provides support for strengthening Australia’s STEM capability.

The Industry and Science portfolio alone has committed $5.8 billion, including more than $3 billion for CSIRO, to scientific research over the next four years.

The Government wants to ensure Australia’s research training system continues to underpin world-class learned inquiry, innovation and productivity.

It’s why we’ve commissioned the Australian Council of Learned Academies to undertake a review of the research training system.

The review will ensure research graduates are equipped to work with industry and bring their ideas to market.

A number of targeted outcomes from the review are expected; for example:

  • supporting the admission and attainment of PhD candidates from non-traditional backgrounds, including Indigenous research students, and
  • securing the research workforce pipeline in fields of national importance, including areas aligned with our national science and research priorities.

The Government has also announced a broader review of research funding and policy to ensure we can boost the links between universities and industry and encourage the application of university research.

This will help improve our living standards, boost Australia’s prosperity and create the jobs of the future, including in research.

The Government announced a new set of national Science and Research Priorities in May following consultation with industry and the research sector.

They are food, soil and water, transport, cybersecurity, energy, resources, advanced manufacturing, environmental change and health.

These priorities will help our world-class science and research efforts to reflect the needs of industry, the national economy and the community.

We are now going about the important work of mapping our current activity against these priorities, which will help us direct future efforts in STEM.

Tackling the STEM skills challenge is not for government alone; the contribution of industry is essential.

The Australian Industry Group acknowledges this, and has said that, “industry needs to become more engaged in the promotion of STEM skills at all levels of education and training”.

This is happening, but not to the degree needed.

For example, I can’t see why a network of companies can’t roll out an initiative similar to CSIRO’s Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools program so every student has access to a real-life working mathematician or scientist?

Also, regular interaction between school students and tech startups or young STEM business professionals would be very useful.

Although this does happen in some instances, it is often patchy across the country.

Professional-to-professional interaction between the industry and science sectors is also vital and this is a high priority for the Australian Government.

It’s one thing developing Australia’s STEM skills and knowledge; it is another converting that knowledge into practical, real-world outcomes.

Despite Australia’s strong research performance, our ability to translate that research into commercial outcomes lags behind comparable countries.

According to the OECD, of a total of 33 countries, Australia ranks 32nd in business to research collaboration for small to medium enterprises. It also ranks 33rd for large firms.

Because of this, the Government is implementing its Boosting the Commercial Returns from Research strategy, which will ensure we maximise the benefits from our investment in science, research and innovation.

Not only do we want to increase our STEM student population, we also want to make sure that after graduation, STEM students can work with industry to boost business growth, productivity and competitiveness.

If we are going to use our STEM capacity to build a stronger and competitive economy, we must ensure science and industry work hand in hand.

It’s why the Government’s Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda is so important. It places science and research at the centre of industry policy and seeks to bolster industries in which Australia has competitive strength.

A centrepiece of this agenda is our $225 million investment in five Industry Growth Centres, which will draw together expertise from business, universities and researchers to solve problems, innovate and improve productivity.

A multifaceted approach to building Australia’s STEM capability and fostering practical application is needed if we are to become a STEM nation.

That means boosting our STEM efforts and making the necessary linkages across the board—from primary school through to university and industry.

We need a cradle to grave approach to STEM.

The Government needs your support in encouraging more students to study STEM subjects and pursue STEM careers.

You are one of the key influencers in a young person’s life. You can give many kids their STEM ‘light bulb’ moment.

You can also count on the Government’s support as you do this important work.

I know you have a busy time ahead over the next two days and I hope you enjoy the diverse STEM topics that have been lined up for discussion.

I look forward to knowing what everyone has to say.

Thank you.

Media contacts: Mrs Andrews' office 02 6277 4360