While policy makers acknowledge the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in schools, an academic in teacher education at the University of Technology Sydney says not enough focus has been placed on issues of equity that are intrinsic to improving outcomes for all students.
Dr Jane Hunter has been undertaking in-depth research into how this drive to expand STEM teaching and learning is playing out in classrooms. She examined how teachers in Sydney’s south-west build their capacity in the STEM disciplines as they strive to implement government policy to progress enthusiasm for STEM subjects.
Over the course of two years, Dr Hunter’s research found that primary school teachers’ capacity and confidence in teaching STEM subjects increases when they use inquiry processes to create integrated term-long units of work.
“Teachers want the best outcomes for their students, but they are often constrained by too little time for professional learning, aging resources and poor infrastructure,” says Dr Hunter.
Dr Hunter uses the High Possibility Classrooms (HPC) framework to assist primary school teachers realise the potential of STEM learning with a focus on more creative interdisciplinary processes.
“Learning all of the prescribed syllabus topics covered in STEM is formidable for teachers,” says Dr Hunter. “But giving them a framework supports them to develop their subject matter knowledge as well as their students’ soft skills – things like problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration.
“Teachers used words like ‘empowered’ in interviews to describe how they felt after being exposed to the HPC framework,” says Dr Hunter. “They reported that they were planning on embedding the framework into the way they taught STEM subjects into the future. They could see better engagement of their students in STEM content they were learning and they felt more confident in their teaching.”
However, the scope of what some schools can do in STEM is often limited by few available resources and a lack of storage space.
“We know that STEM subjects are integral to the jobs of the future,” says Dr Hunter. “But we still have schools that have unreliable WiFi. We have schools where the equipment needed for STEM cannot be purchased and where, for example, students have to disassemble their technology projects at the end of each class, because the next class needs to reuse the same materials even though the work is incomplete.
“Rather than just being able to walk in and pick up where they left off, students spend time getting back to square one each lesson. It’s frustrating for teachers, and it’s frustrating for students,” says Dr Hunter. “It impacts on learning when students feel that they are wasting time.”
Dr Hunter’s research focused on work with 37 teachers from eight primary schools involving 980 students. The studies are ongoing and will form the basis of furthering understanding of the government’s innovation agenda and policies.