How important is STEM education?

Recent reports have highlighted Australia’s declining results in PISA testing of maths, science and reading capabilities of children. Some in particular have drawn attention to Australia’s relatively weak performance compared with China and Singapore. I am unsure what this means. Should we invest more in maths and science education?

The Singaporean government is making it harder for foreigners to work there. International company people I meet in Singapore complain that young Singaporeans cannot perform as well as foreigners and demand too much pay, and the government is trying to force companies to employ more locals.

Recently I listened to Johannes Strobel from the University of Missouri talking about science and maths education in US schools and described how his team observed teachers in classrooms. There were great teachers with creative ideas in their classrooms. However, when it was time to teach maths, the teachers were not confident enough to teach without referring constantly to their notes. No wonder the children developed the idea that maths is really hard.

Why are these issues so important, now?

Most people, even here in Australia, recognize that climate change is happening and we humans are largely responsible. Not so obvious are all the other impacts we’re causing across our planet. We’re going to need many more young people who can use engineering and technology effectively to transform our world to sustainable ways of living within the earth’s capacity. So, should we follow the lead of countries like Korea and China and promote a much stronger STEM curriculum in all our schools?

I think we need a different conversation.

In my experience, every successful engineering and technological achievement reflects not only science and mathematics, but also the creative arts, humanities and social sciences. My reading suggests that prosperity and a strong inclusive society depend on investing across the spectrum of human performances and achievements.

Take for example, our new energy-saving air conditioning technology being commercialised at Close Comfort providing cheaper cooling, large energy savings and large greenhouse emission reductions. However, getting people to change habitual ways of thinking about comfort and cooling has required collaboration with marketing and education experts, drawing on creative talent in arts and entertainment with understanding of social sciences.

Creative ideas in the humanities and social sciences coupled with engineering ingenuity have the potential to help unleash a new wave of productivity improvement. Investments in large scale energy, mineral resource and process industries could be up to three times more productive by improving collaboration in large engineering enterprises. However, we will need the best ideas in education, social sciences and humanities, even linguistics, to achieve these breakthroughs.

Ultimately, the sustainability of our human civilisation depends far more on how human behaviour and technologies interact than we like to think. There are sound reasons to be confident that aboriginal knowledge developed over countless millennia might provide ideas that enable humanity to break out from environmentally destructive practices without compromising living standards.

I think that we need to recognise that investment in creative arts, cultural and social sciences and humanities and the links with technology, engineering and commerce will be as critical for our collective future as investment in technological innovations.

I am not sure that the Australian government is well-positioned to help. After the latest mega department mergers the arts has vanished into a “new and efficient” bureaucracy with no fewer than 5 ministers tied to one department for decentralization, roads and territories among many others.

New technological innovations won’t help much either. Given the timescale – we need to eliminate greenhouse emissions within 30 years or so – we have to make changes mostly with existing technologies. That’s because most new technologies take 30 – 40 years from their first public demonstration to become widely used.

So, finding creative ways to use existing technologies will be more helpful. For that we need much more understanding on how we can change the ways we think, behave and collaborate.

There’s one thing that’s common in all our education systems: the focus on individual achievements measured with grades. I would like to see a conversation on how we can focus much more on educating young people to collaborate and help each other with collective performances valued more highly than anyone’s individual contribution.

PISA testing does not measure that.

Image: Lucas Law –


  1. It is possible to train STEM students to collaborate, and work in teams with members having different skills. This can still have rigorous testing of the students, but through their performance on project work, including peer assessment. Computing students at the Australian National University can do this in the TechLauncher program. This year for their last assessment task before graduating, I took them through peer assessed exercises to be able to explain what they had learned.


    • Hi Tom. Thanks for the comment and the link to your blog. Peer assessment has been rated as the single most effective intervention in higher education (Schneider, M., & Preckel, F. (2016). Variables Associated with Achievement in Higher Education: A Systematic Review of Meta-analyses. Psychological Bulletin, 143(6), 36. doi:10.1037/bul0000098). However, much depends on the detail: for example the kinds of questions asked in the assessment. For example, a question asking students to rate their peers’ contributions to (for example) the analysis or final report risks reinforcing an emphasis on individual achievement. Whereas a question like “rate your peers on the extent to which they helped you achieve at your best level” or “rate your peers on productive discussions you had with them when you were able to jointly come up with ideas that neither of you managed to think of on your own” both emphasise collaborative performances. I hope you have the opportunity to ask more of the latter types of questions. Releasing these questions in advance may influence team behaviour too, of course. Another influence is the tendency of students to rate their peers more highly than their real performance warranted. Either way, peer assessment is still known to be very effective at promoting collaborative behaviour.


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