Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions are estimated to be 75% of the future workforce.
But it tends to be boys and students from more privileged backgrounds who find themselves in STEM subjects, degrees and careers.
Some experts attribute this to social and cultural forces that impact not only which students become (and stay) interested in STEM, but also what is taught in STEM-related subjects, and how.
Access to equipment, teacher role models and peers with similar interests all play their part in this sifting process. Without crucial aspects like these, STEM remains inaccessible or off-putting to many.
Dr Stefan Schutt of The Lab and the Whittlesea Tech School is due to present at the STEM Education Conference in Sydney in July and offers some thoughts on how to improve the accessibility of STEM to make it more inclusive.
“We need to be mindful of how children may have already been socialised. as well as the interests they hold”, says Dr Schutt. “We need to create tasks that are meaningful and engaging for children, that tap into their intrinsic motivation because they are based on the things that appeal to them. Many talented young people with autism, for instance, have strong but narrow interests, and tapping into these interests is key to engagement.”
“If children can’t see the point of learning something, if they can’t apply the knowledge to something useful or meaningful to them, they will become disengaged. It’s also important to build a supportive social environment where children feel comfortable, especially girls or students with disabilities.”
Gender socialisation also plays a part. Stefan cites research indicating that girls are socialised not to damage or destroy objects when young. This means they are less likely to tinker or pull things apart than boys– a crucial way to learn how things work.
“Girls tend to be given dolls and tea sets to play with gently, whereas boys are often given toys like trucks and racing cars. We need to be mindful of this and come up with suitable tasks that recognise these different strengths and appeal to different groups”.
Stefan will offer further advice on how to make STEM more inclusive at the STEM Education Conference – due to take place 25-26 July at the Rydges World Square Sydney.