Great teaching sits behind great achievement, and teachers have an enormous role to play in inspiring students’ interest and ensuring success in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).
But STEM success requires more than passionate teachers; culture, curriculum and pedagogy (teaching practice) can present barriers to STEM careers, particularly for girls, and sexism is a real influence in career choice.
Our research on student aspirations, in which we asked students from Year 3 to Year 12 over several years what they want to do and be when they left school, revealed boys were three times as likely as girls to want to go into STEM careers.
STEM was also attractive to students with high achievement in numeracy and literacy, and students with a parent who worked in the field.
Our research showed that the gendered nature of subject culture has a big impact on what students imagine they want to be.
Across a whole range of careers, and despite the work done on gender equity over many years, gendered aspirations arise. The vast majority of students interested in engineering are male (91%), and the vast majority of students interested in nursing are female (96%). Where we actually come closest to half and half is in science (47% female), although when we look at STEM more broadly, only 27% of interested students are female.
One explanation is the way STEM is seen among students and sometimes among teachers.
Many students said you have to be brainy or nerdy to be interested in STEM. A Year 9 girl described maths as a male-based ‘black hole, and you just don’t go there’, and a Year 12 girl who visited an engineering students Facebook page as part of a university open day said she found so many memes with sexual undertones that she felt it would not be a safe place for a woman.
Since 2001, when students were no longer required to undertake either a mathematics, science or technology course to receive their HSC, the number of students undertaking any maths in Year 12 has declined dramatically. The numbers peaked in 2009 and have remained relatively stable with approximately 12% of boys and 27% of girls opting to take no maths at all in the HSC.
When students don’t have to do maths in senior secondary school, it can mean they have limited access to many STEM careers; you need a strong grounding in advanced mathematics to do many forms of engineering, maths and science.
But it’s not just a matter of Year 11 subject choices. Unless students have achieved highly in primary school maths they can be graded into the lower streams in secondary school. In NSW, where the curriculum has different maths pathways as early as Year 9, unless students are in the top pathway, they are already grouped out of doing higher level maths.
So there are some structural changes to address, but certainly what teachers do in the classroom, their teaching practice and the learning experiences they provide for their students, is an important aspect of encouraging students in STEM.
This is where the work done over the past few decades on the Quality Teaching Model can be really helpful to teachers. It’s all about making learning powerful, supportive and meaningful.
The three dimensions of the Quality Teaching Model – Intellectual Quality, Quality Learning Environment, and Significance – draw teachers’ attention to aspects of classroom practice that can engage and inspire students and ensure their deep understanding of important ideas.
Significance, in particular, is about making learning meaningful so that students are not just doing schoolwork for its own sake.
Ways to do this include drawing on students’ background knowledge, prior school knowledge, out-of-school knowledge, and cultural knowledge.
There are three key areas where teachers can encourage STEM interest and success in their students.
The first is for teachers to be mindful of their own assumptions and how they manifest in the classroom. Students are very quick to pick up on the subtle things teachers say and do. If teachers suggest a difference between males and females in terms of their capacity to engage in maths, for example, it can have a long-standing effect on subject and career choices.
Second is to maximise everyday interactions teachers have with children and young people. The smallest comment can hit home and be remembered by a student. When a teacher says, ‘I can’t wait to see your brilliant career’, or ‘I don’t think you’d be up to doing that subject’, those messages given directly to individual students can be really powerful. The ways in which teachers encourage, support and praise students can make a difference.
Finally, teachers need to ensure they maximise meaningful and powerful learning experiences for students. Teachers light intellectual fires. They provide supportive classroom environments and they make learning significant.
Teachers have a vital role every day in nurturing the next generation of scientists, designers, engineers and mathematicians.
If the future of STEM is to be bright, then teachers and teaching matter.