Smart way ahead: STEM skills are about to get the government boost they deserve

I have always been fascinated by how things work.

As a curious eight-year-old, I recall being captivated by the washing machine and how the agitator turned the same amount in a clockwise and anti-clockwise direction every time.

To me, a fridge, a flight of stairs and a flashlight were not merely everyday conveniences; they were miracles of human ingenuity worthy of the most careful examination.

This natural inquisitiveness motivated me to study maths and science at school and later to enrol in mechanical engineering at university and pursue a career in this field.

My personal experiences have enabled me to understand how science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as STEM, can drive progress in our society and lead to immensely rewarding careers.

Advances in STEM and Australian ingenuity underpin much of our current prosperity. Lance Hill, for instance, developed the Hills hoist by tinkering in his backyard to make life easier for his family.

The creativity and enterprise of Australian scientists and innovators have also given the world the black box flight recorder, the bionic ear, Wi-Fi and long wearing contact lenses.

But our modern industrialised economy is challenged by disruptive technologies. This has meant that jobs requiring STEM skills grew 50 per cent faster than other jobs between 2006 and 2011, and this trend is set to continue, with three in every four jobs of the future needing STEM expertise.

Yet, despite the opportunities, employers are finding it hard to recruit people with these skills.

Demand for workers in information and communications technology doubled between 1999 and 2012 — but applications for tertiary ICT courses during that same period declined. At the same time, fewer young people are studying science, maths and computing at high school.

So it’s time to act. As part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda — the ideas boom — we are investing $84 million to boost digital literacy in our young people and encourage more students to study STEM-related subjects.

Online computing challenges for Year 5 and 7 students, digital upskilling programs for our teachers and initiatives like ICT summer schools for students in Years 9 and 10 are just some of the measures we will embark on.

We’re also going to inspire the next generation of STEM experts by introducing youth prizes in the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, engaging preschoolers with STEM-based apps and inspiring curiosity through events such as National Science Week.

Ultimately, students with STEM skills will have the power to change the world. Science, technology, engineering and maths will be at the heart of solving a broad range of challenges in a variety of areas, from health, space travel and renewable energy to language barriers, climate change and poverty.

Look at the power of STEM skills and the influence they’re already having. If you’re reading this on your tablet, laptop, desktop or smartphone, you are experiencing the power of science, technology, engineering and maths.

With hundreds of thousands of Australian school students preparing to start the new school year, this reminder of the importance of STEM skills couldn’t be more timely.

Who knows, the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs — or Lance Hills, for that matter — could be sitting in one of our classrooms.

We have an obligation to ensure these creative minds are given every opportunity possible to make their mark on Australia — and the globe.

Published in The Australian, 22 January 2016