Why are STEM subjects so important?

It is one of the buzz-words of pedagogy today – STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics subjects. But despite its popularity in educational discourse, it is unclear how many schools are really embracing STEM as a radical change to the way young people need to be educated to thrive in the workforce of the future. According to the Education Council, acquiring strong capabilities in school-level STEM subjects continues to grow in importance in terms of developing Australia’s future STEM-related workforce. More broadly, STEM skills have been recognised as being strongly related to critical thinking, problem solving and logic competencies, all of which are essential for success in any field. 

Australia’s performance in STEM subjects is declining

Australia’s STEM performance is still lagging behind where we need to be.  An OECD survey found that out of 16 countries, Australia ranked 9th in student achievement in mathematics and 6th in science achievement for students aged 15[1] .

In fact, Australia is being outperformed by many neighbouring nations including New Zealand, Hong Kong, Korea, China and Singapore. Australia’s performance in science and mathematics has been declining over the past decade and it has been suggested that this could be partly attributable to the proportion of Australian schools experiencing difficulty finding science and mathematics teachers

A report by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) found that less than 1 in 4 students are being taught by a qualified mathematics teacher in each of Years 7 to 10, with many being taught by out of field teachers. This situation is also set to worsen as student numbers increase, particularly because AMSI argues that Australia has not been producing enough mathematics teachers for years. They suggest that the decision to become a mathematics teacher often starts with studying high-level mathematics in year 12, and according to their research, the proportion of year 12 students doing these subjects fell 32% between 1996 and 2014.

Similarly, a report by Deloitte Access Economics produced these sobering statistics regarding post-school STEM qualifications in 2008 versus 2018. Despite this decline being modest, it is certainly not moving in the right direction and the trend is surprising given the growing significance of STEM jobs in the changing Australian economy.

It is also curious that more students are not immersing themselves in STEM programs post-secondary schooling, given the growing demand for these skills by employers, even where STEM qualifications are not a prerequisite for the role. In particular, employers value capabilities in active learning, critical thinking, complex problem-solving and creative problem-solving, all of which are associated with STEM-based qualification skills. 

How do Australian schools measure up?

In 2015, a 10-year (2016–2026) National STEM School Education Strategy was endorsed by Australian education ministers, recognizing that a national focus on STEM school education is critical to ensure young Australians have the skills to succeed professionally. It centred around two goals: to ensure all students finish school with strong foundational knowledge in STEM and related skills and to ensure students are inspired to take on more challenging STEM subjects. Five strategies were articulated to achieve these goals:

  1. Increase student STEM ability, engagement, participation and aspiration
  2. Increase teacher capacity and STEM teaching quality
  3. Support STEM education opportunities within school systems
  4. Facilitate effective partnerships with tertiary education providers, businesses and industries
  5. Build a strong evidence base by continuing to invest in research

In terms of items 3 and 4, we concur with Access Economics research that suggests work placements and work experience are one of the most effective teaching methods for helping students acquire the skills they need in the workplace. As a regular host for vocational internships, we know that employers and industry can do much to engage with students at all levels and foster their interest in further STEM-based education and employment in STEM industries. The North Sydney Innovation Network also cites actively boosting STEM involvement at all levels of education as one of our 7 Key Innovation Priorities. Strong engagement between schools, universities, TAFE and the local startup ecosystem with ideas such as mentor programs and courses delivered by experienced entrepreneurs, as well as finding other ways to immerse young people in advanced STEM, are critical for long term economic resilience. 

Gender in STEM careers

The gender disparity in STEM careers remains a concern with the ABS, indicating that of the 2.7 million people with higher level STEM qualifications in 2010-11, men accounted for around four-fifths (81%)[2]. In a report developed by Deakin University and the University of Melbourne, Girls’ Future – Our Future, researchers found Australian girls have one of the lowest rates of STEM involvement in the Western world. The report suggests that a significant factor driving this trend are the cultural stereotypes imposed on girls which set out what it means to be a girl and ultimately serve to constrain their place in the world. Worryingly, it seems girls still associate the world of mathematics with boys, despite a report published by the Office of the Chief Scientist finding there is actually no gender difference in mathematics ability. Inclusiveness, as is the case with most inequity, is key. As a society, Australia needs to create a conducive cultural environment where there is an expectation that girls will become engineers. This has been shown to to improve participation in countries like China, where 40% of engineers are women and in Malaysia where 44% of engineers are women.

Overall however, the gender gap is evident globally; an OECD report indicating that fewer women than men complete STEM university degrees, despite the fact that across 67 countries, girls outperformed boys in science in 19, boys outperformed girls in 22, and the results were statistically insignificant across the remaining countries. This suggests there should be less of a pronounced gap across the world in the number of girls pursuing higher STEM education and careers. 

When the gender gap was analysed by looking at each student’s “relative performance” or “strength” across the three subjects of reading, science, and mathematics, girls were found to be stronger in reading in all countries, while boys were stronger in mathematics and science in the majority of surveyed countries. This suggests students may be choosing their field of study based on their comparative, rather than on their absolute strengths, a factor that can only be addressed by encouraging girls to set high yet realistic expectations for their future education and careers in STEM industries. Failure to address this issue may deny societies and economies of the valuable and much needed talent that skilled women can offer. The ability to connect with and influence students in a systematic way makes schools a key access point for career guidance and information about further STEM-based education and career opportunities.

Women make up only 11.8% of the engineering workforce in Australia, according to the 2011 ABS census. This is not surprising given that only 16% of the 19,550 students that completed university-level engineering courses in 2014 were female. The University of NSW (UNSW) has set a target to have 30% of its engineering enrollments from female applicants by 2020, and this year, 25% of placement offers in engineering were made to female school-leavers, compared to just 19% in 2013[3].

Australia needs STEM qualified employees

A 2018 report[4] by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) identified the importance of STEM education as both a social and economic imperative. STEM skills are crucial for solving the increasingly complex challenges we face today, and to remain economically competitive, Australia must produce the required skilled workforce to fill STEM jobs. 

Employers view people with STEM qualifications as broadly valuable to a workplace because of their perceived flexibility and ability to adapt to and implement innovation. In fact,  the ACER report found that 71% of employers nominated their STEM staff as among their most innovative, and almost half expected their requirements for STEM staff to increase over the next 5 years.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), growth in STEM-related jobs was 1.5 times the growth rate of other jobs (14% compared to 9%) between 2006 and 2011[5].

Employer groups are also increasingly sounding the alarm, with many already reporting having difficulty in filling Technician and Trades Worker roles (40%); as well as other roles for STEM graduates (32%), including professional and managerial roles.

Addressing the shortage 

In 2015, technology-oriented companies including Telstra, Westpac and Hewlett Packard teamed up in an initiative to mentor school students over the Internet, with the aim of boosting participation in STEM subjects. The initiative was launched under the “Australia Day of STEM” banner and was initiated by US online education consultant LifeJourney

The Day of STEM is a national initiative that was designed to inspire the next generation of Australian STEM professionals through an interactive online program. The program helps secondary school students understand the type of work they would do in a particular role and work out what interests them by allowing them to test drive different STEM careers. Essentially, it allows students to experience a virtual ‘day in the life’ of the nation’s leading STEM professionals via pre-recorded videos and interviews.

In order to get more women into engineering, UNSW Engineering faculty has been actively recruiting female students and running STEM outreach programs, including its Women in Engineering Summer Camp for senior high school students. This four-day residential experience for female year 11 or 12 students gives them the opportunity to learn more about different engineering disciplines. Students are able to participate in hands-on workshops, attend industry site visits and careers panels, and network with professional engineers. UNSW has also introduced the Head-Start Awards scholarship program, where the 60 highest-ranking commencing students are awarded $3000 each. There are also another 15 women in engineering program scholarships, 10 of which are sponsored by the engineering industry.

Another great initiative from Engineers Australia and the Beacon Foundation is Business Blackboards, a collaborative approach to education with lesson plans co-designed and co-delivered by teachers and industry professionals. The lessons created through this collaboration clearly link industry practice with the school curriculum. There are over 100 Business Blackboard lessons available to schools engaged with The Beacon Foundation through its online learning platform, eBeacon.

There are clearly many opportunities to increase STEM skills in Australian schools, whether through Government funding initiatives or programs, tertiary institution outreach, and scholarships or industry engagement. Clearly, no single strategy can address a shortage of STEM employees. Impediments to women in STEM are deeply rooted in cultures and institutions and it will likely take many years to challenge the status quo. Overall, a multifaceted approach across all levels of education and the workforce is necessary to furnish Australia with the STEM-literate workforce we need to prosper.

Written by:
Shireen Bernstein

Insights and Partnerships Manager, North Sydney Innovation Network (NSIN) info@northsydneyinnovation.org


[1] OECD Skills Surveys, retrieved at: http://pisadataexplorer.oecd.org/ ide/idepisa/report.aspx.
[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2014). Perspectives on education and training: Australians with qualifications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), 2010–11.
[3] Addressing the shortage of women engineers retrieved at https://www.engineersaustralia.org.au/News/addressing-shortage-women-engineers
[4] Retrieved at https://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1028&context=policy_analysis_misc
[5] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2014). Perspectives on education and training: Australians with qualifications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), 2010–11. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4250.0.55.005main+features1201 0%E2%80%9311