Issues Magazine

Promoting Science Careers Using the STELR Project

By Peter Pentland

A STELR plan has been devised to arrest the decline in participation rates in upper secondary science and maths.

In March 2008, an Australian Council of Engineering Deans report identified a shortfall of about 30,000 engineers available to undertake known or available engineering work. This situation is predicted to worsen as baby-boomer engineers retire.

The Australian Government has also noted a skills shortage affecting technological careers and trades.

Why is this the case? Students completing their secondary education do not have the necessary prerequisite subjects to enter technical tertiary courses, and participation rates in the sciences and mathematics at the upper secondary level have been steadily declining over the past 30 years.

Figure 1 (click on it to zoom), compiled from data from the 2008 report Participation in Science, Mathematics and Technology in Australian Education, illustrates this decline.

Figure 1

A major reason for this trend is that students think science lacks relevance to their lives, even though they live in a world rich in technology and dependent on the applications of science.

On the other hand, students have been found to be concerned about their future and the global future. A June 2007 report by the Australian Childhood Foundation showed that Australian children are “deeply concerned” about the state of the environment and the impact of climate change.

The report, Children’s Fears, Hopes and Heroes – Modern Childhood in Australia, surveyed 600 children aged 10–14 years across Australia and revealed that:

  • 52% are concerned that there will not be enough water in the future;
  • 44% are worried about the impact of climate change; and
  • 43% are worried about pollution in the air and water.

The Science and Technology Education Leveraging Relevance (STELR) project was developed in response to this severe shortage of engineers, scientists and technicians in Australia. It aims to increase the retention rates in sciences and mathematics at the upper secondary level by showing students that science is relevant to their lives.

A national initiative of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), one of Australia’s four learned academies, the STELR project also aims to:

  • address the skill shortage in technological careers and trades;
  • improve the level of science literacy in the community;
  • improve the quality of science classroom teaching practice; and
  • provide a relevant context for learning and applying fundamental concepts in the sciences.
    • Using the contexts of global warming and climate change, the STELR in-curriculum package teaches students about energy principles and renewable energy resources. Students take part in discussions, research information, do hands-on investigations and communicate ideas using a range of media. They learn scientific techniques, make evidence-based judgements and appreciate how science is applied in the world. As a part of their work students also investigate careers available in the renewable energy industry.

      The STELR project is designed to be experienced by all students at either Year 9 or 10 so that they will consider studying science subjects and mathematics at the senior secondary level. It is integrated into the curriculum so that all students at the appropriate year level participate in the activities, not just the students that would usually choose science electives.

      Schools participating in the project receive curriculum materials with a focus on enquiry-based learning activities. The materials include background information on global warming, climate change and the science behind renewable energy resources. Schools are provided with class sets of equipment needed to carry out practical investigations, online support and teacher training. In 2009 and 2010, this will be at no cost to participating schools.

      The STELR project also aims to improve the quality of classroom teaching. Two teachers from each participating school attend a 2-day seminar where they learn enquiry-based learning techniques and gain valuable experience with the curriculum materials. They also experience using the laboratory equipment provided to schools to support the activities.

      In their evaluation of the proof-of-concept phase of the project, Peter Hubber and Damian Blake from Deakin University reported a measurable increase in student enjoyment of science classes and a perception of relevance of science to their lives following STELR project participation.

      The STELR project aims to show that there are increasing numbers of rewarding and interesting careers in the rapidly expanding renewable energy industry. These are careers that will make a difference to the quality of life of people throughout the world and contribute to efforts to “save the planet”.

      Students are encouraged to research career profiles of people working in the renewable energy industry. To facilitate this activity, a page in the STELR website is devoted to career profiles. The page is being added to regularly.

      The idea is to allow students to discover the education pathways that the people have followed to gain the qualifications for their jobs. Each career profile sets out the subjects studied at the upper level of secondary schooling, the tertiary courses undertaken and the institutions attended. Students are also able to discover the side-benefits and opportunities such qualifications provide, such as travel and the opportunity to work in locations all over the world.

      The profiles give other information that might influence student choices such as the starting salary and salary range applicable in the careers. They will eventually highlight all kinds of careers available in the renewable energy sector, such as engineering, electrical and plumbing trades, web design, data management, human resources, publicity, marketing, management, and science (including environmental science).

      The STELR project is currently being trialled in 29 schools across Australia. Evaluation of this pilot phase will be used to further improve the curriculum materials and activities. The classroom equipment is being developed so that students will be able to more easily carry out investigations and analyse their results. The content of the curriculum will align closely with the requirements of the national curriculum in science and mathematics.

      The STELR project has recently been funded by the federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. This funding will enable 150 additional schools drawn from each state and territory to take part in the project in 2010. The STELR Stage One Project 2009–2010 is supported by the Australian Government.

      Schools can apply to take part in the project by visiting the STELR website and filling out an expression of interest form or by contacting the project manager, Peter Pentland (peter.pentland@atse.org.au).