Successful Students – STEM Program | STEM in schools

STEM in Schools

While Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics are disciplines in their own right. Their synergies are championed under the “STEM” banner are igniting a flurry of political and industry discussion, and this raises significant implications for education. The current STEM education agenda is driven by the belief that STEM skills are crucial to innovation and development in our contemporary technological, knowledge-based, competitive global economy (Office of the Chief Scientist 2014a). Because STEM is being positioned so central to a country’s competitiveness, it is influencing funding in industry, education and research internationally. To some extent a utilitarian conceptualisation of education, while not new, is promoted through this drive to prepare students for a STEM-dominated future in which three-quarters of jobs are forecast to need STEM skills and capabilities (Office of the Chief Scientist 2014a).

In Australia, concerns have been voiced about both performance and participation of students in STEM related subjects through all sectors, and whether young people are fully prepared for the modern workplace (Australian Industry Group, 2013). In international comparisons over the last decade, Australian school students performed better than the OECD average, but achievement in science is stagnating and declining in mathematics compared to other countries (Thompson et al., 2012). Since 1992, many STEM related subjects at senior secondary level show declines in participation, particularly in more demanding subjects (Office of the Chief Scientist 2014b). State and Federal education authorities have reacted by initiating a range of policy changes culminating in the National STEM School Education Strategy (Education Council 2015) that aims to:

  • raise student STEM participation and achievement through increasing student aspirations;
  • improve teacher capacity and quality;
  • support opportunities within school systems;
  • create partnerships with tertiary providers, business and industry; and build an evidence base.

These aims resonate with initiatives in other parts of the world, such as within the European Community where attempts have been made to raise student STEM awareness, establish industry and school links, and build up STEM teaching skills (Scientix 2014).

Developing a STEM Vision

The challenge for educators is to translate a STEM policy agenda into valid and coherent curriculum. In order to consolidate the objectives and activities of the SS-STEM program, we felt the need to articulate a comprehensive, multi-faceted and coherent STEM vision that addresses the subtle and complex challenge of preparing “twenty-first century” citizens within the constraints of a traditional school system and curriculum. This vision is designed to enable educators to engage with the STEM agenda through a targeted and deliberate framing of STEM, the STEM practices that can inform teaching, learning, and curriculum, and how to build teacher capacity and lead change in schools. The STEM vision is summarised in Figure 1.

Figure summarising the STEM Vision
Figure 1. The Successful Students-STEM Program “STEM Vision”

The Framing of STEM: STEM education is conceptualised as both inclusive of the separate disciplines as well as interdisciplinary

Increasingly the STEM community is looking to integration of the STEM disciplines in real world design problems as a way of engaging students in imaginative and collaborative problem solving and reasoning. STEM practice should be seen as inclusive of the knowledge generating practices of the individual disciplines, as well as what is common across the disciplines. Vasquez (2015) describes STEM, not a curriculum, but “as an approach to learning that removes the traditional barriers separating the four disciplines and integrates them into real-world, rigorous, relevant learning experiences for students” (p.11). Figure 1 depicts a scale of the different models of STEM in education: In line with Vasquez’s definition, STEM can be represented as a meta-discipline that relates to only the overlaps between the disciplines (Amalgamated model), and refers to the generic or ‘soft’ skills that are common to all four disciplines. Alternatively, STEM is inclusive of the interconnections between as well as the individual practices of each discipline (Holistic model), recognising that the work or science and mathematics teachers can similarly represent the discursive practices of the STEM disciplines.

Figure Different models of STEM in education
Figure 2. Different models of STEM in education

Schools are structured as predominantly subject-specific, however there is a move towards some degree of inter-disciplinarily. In order to be inclusive of the current teachers in schools, STEM needs to be presented as being relevant to mathematics, science, design and technology and digital technology learning areas of the Victorian curriculum, as well as offering a means of bringing these disciplines. By presenting real-world problems that require solutions from across the four disciplines, the barriers between the disciplines can be broken down.

Teaching and Learning

STEM practices and pedagogies: A strong pedagogical framework of inquiry is informed by STEM practices.

STEM practices relate to the disciplinary practices recognisable across the four disciplines. Table 1 summarises four interconnecting practices, and describes the related STEM teaching and learning practices that can support their development.

Table 1. STEM practices
Interconnecting practices (Clarke 2014) STEM Teaching and Learning Practices
Flexible reasoning skills
  • Problem solving
  • Creativity
  • Generating own questions
  • Inquiry
Effective and adaptable use of artefacts
  • Conceptual, digital, physical tools
  • Exploring and investigating artefacts
  • Using a range of modern tools, digital tools
  • Being able to use objects of the discipline in a flexible way, such as natural phenomena, representations of the phenomena, and tools that are used to understand the phenomena or complex problems
  • Application to new contexts
Proficiency in professional/technical discourse:
  • Understanding and engaging with the disciplinary representations
  • Knowing the language
  • Sharing and communicating
  • Working in teams
Understanding of the nature of evidence in different settings
  • Collect real data in a variety of situations
  • Using evidence to validate a solution to a problem or justify a decision
  • Making judgements about the accuracy and reliability of information

Activities and projects can be applied within and across science and mathematics that illustrate a variety of inter-disciplinary and subject-specific models of STEM Education. It is important to articulate ways of conceptualising developmental progression in interdisciplinary STEM practices and how these practices can be applied within and across the STEM subjects.

STEM Pedagogies should underpin a teacher’s pedagogy. Pedagogies applied through other STEM programs include:

  • Inquiry through representations – Guided inquiry pedagogies in science and mathematics have been shown to engage low SES students in active learning and improve learning outcomes. These approaches align school STEM curricula with the knowledge building practices of science and mathematics and exemplify use of the discursive, representational tools and artefacts, such as drawing and modelling, animations and a range of digital tools and resources that now pervade STEM professional and research practice.
    • Students are explicitly supported to engage with the processes of investigation and problem solving
    • Students engage in mathematical/scientific reasoning and argumentation
    • Students are supported to develop an understanding of creative problem solving and design processes
    • Students are challenged and supported to develop their own representations as a means of explaining and justifying their understanding
  • A range of assessment modes are used to monitor and support individual students’ developing understandings
    • Individual students’ learning needs are monitored and addressed
    • Learners receive feedback to support further learning
  • Learning technologies are used to enhance student learning
  • Content is designed to link with students’ lives and tap into / elicit their interests
  • Learning connects strongly with communities and practice beyond the classroom
    • Learning connects strongly with communities and practice beyond the classroom
    • Learners engage with a rich, contemporary view of mathematics and science knowledge and practice

Current STEM Curriculum development and practices: Curriculum is locally developed using multiple models of discipline integration and teacher collaboration

Teachers develop curriculum with each other and other teachers in their schools in ways that reflect the priorities and cultures of their school. Based on experiences with the SS-STEM project working with 10 schools in the Geelong region, teacher collaboration strategies employed will vary across schools. In response to the needs of the partner schools, the Successful Students-STEM Program has developed critical perspectives on models of STEM education that include different teacher collaboration and curriculum models (disciplinary focus on improving mathematics or science curriculum and teaching practices; or interdisciplinary where science, mathematics and technology teachers develop integrated units or new STEM units). Figure 3 shows the range of collaboration and integration models used by teachers in the project.

  1. Teach each discipline separately: In science classes, there is a renewed focus on using representations to enhance concept development. In mathematics, teachers could use complex problem solving to challenge their students.
  2. Teach all four but more emphasis on one or two: A teacher integrates mathematics and science through a challenge based unit of work where students design a vehicle.
  3. Integrate one into the other 3 being taught separately: The engineering processes of team work, identify and investigate a problem, design a solution, and testing and evaluation is added into some science and mathematics units, but there are limited links across the science and mathematics subjects.
  4. Total integration of all by a teacher: Science teacher integrating, T, E and M into science. A school introduces a new STEM elective focusing on designing digital solutions to real world problems.
  5. Divide a STEM curriculum into the separate subjects: Technology, science and maths teachers design a combined unit and each teacher teaches different components of the unit in their separate subject, and with clear contributions from science, maths and technology subjects in solving a common problem.
Figure 3. Teacher collaboration and integration models used by schools in 2016 of the Successful Students-STEM Program

Teachers tend to work in a variety of ways, by working as individual teachers, or as teams of teachers, either subject-based or as interdisciplinary teams. There will be a need for the schools to develop a strategy of working that allows for specific collaboration models among teachers.

Teacher learning and leading change: Teacher learning is supported, intensive and on-going

Teacher learning can be supported through intensive sessions or ongoing or cumulative interaction over time. Teacher learning is a multifaceted process, and can occur by the teacher:

  1. identifying areas of concern/need for learning – this occurs where teachers can consider their current practice and establish goals for their learning, and goals for STEM education in their school;
  2. securing resources, knowledge, and people that can support the learning – teachers need: to gain access to resources and knowledge of content, strategies and STEM practices that can be linked to their school curriculum; support from specialists in the area can help in the development of theory-informed practice, both in the specialist centre, but when back in schools to implement and embed the new practices;
  3. reflecting on and critical analysis of practice – teachers need to be able to trial new approaches, re-assess outcomes and revise beliefs about learning and core purposes of STEM; reflective practice should be embedded in the programs, with each of the programs involving evaluation of the effect on their students, possibly with opportunities for teachers to report on new curriculum and teaching and learning approaches; and
  4. transforming practice and identity – transformation can occur at multiple levels: the teachers’ practice and identity in relation to STEM; teachers’ ability to support and build capacity of other teachers in the school; and through steering STEM education within the school.

The teacher is a conduit for student engagement. There is an opportunity for the leading teachers and school leadership to work closely with teachers to build their capacity for delivery STEM curriculum. It will be important to understand the learning intentions of both the students as well as the teachers, and to provide teachers with opportunities to enhance their own learning, trial new practices, and reflect on their learning. Teacher learning may be enhanced through teacher network meetings (across schools), professional development that has intensive and ongoing components, and real chances for teachers to develop school curriculum that incorporates the STEM experiences in authentic and value-added ways. Teacher professional development can attend to the following questions:

  • What is effective STEM education?
  • What does effective STEM teaching and learning look like?
  • What pedagogies are needed for an innovative STEM curriculum?
  • What cooperative approaches to teacher learning will lead to improved practice? (supports, purposes)
  • How can effective STEM education be implemented in year 7 and 8?
  • What evidence can be used to evaluate STEM programs?

Community-industry engagement: Links with community and industry support and provide meaningful contexts, authenticity and depth to the teaching programs

Linking science and mathematics with industry, the community and families is an effective way to emphasise the relevance of science and mathematics in all facets of human activity, and to particularly acknowledge the social and cultural aspects of the disciplines. Community-industry engagement assists teachers and students to make connections between ideas within a discipline, with other disciplines and with the digital, analogue and real world. Programs that illustrate how such links can be made can involve one-off industry talks or through in-depth exploration of contextualised issues or problems.

In addition, community-industry engagement can be through representing latest and cutting edge research occurring within the STEM community. For example, “Future and Emerging Technologies” (FET) research, which is considered to be high risk, long term, multidisciplinary and collaborative frontier research, lays the foundations for radically new, next generation technologies. According to the “Digital Agenda for Europe”.

A range of science and mathematics related industries, organisations and research could be available within the local area; these possibly offer powerful resources for schools. However, the practices, and underpinning concepts and processes can be quite complex and not necessarily easily translated in the classroom. Translation of the contemporary STEM practices into the classroom by teachers may require support: understanding the relevant science or mathematical concepts, processes and representations, selecting parts that will be engaging for students, and knowing and developing the teaching strategies that maximize the student learning.

Some local industries and education centres can provide meaningful contexts for exploring the latest digital technologies and STEM applications, while others are more focused on technologies of the future, called “Future and Emerging Technologies” (FET). At Deakin, Geelong, the Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM), CADET and CSIRO potentially offer contexts for FET. Schools need to be supported in considering how industry links can inform the school curriculum. Programs that enable exploration of these contexts should:

  • Be explicit about the disciplines involved;
  • Align the STEM practices that are relevant for the context;
  • Incorporate pedagogies that enable engagement with the discursive practices and problem solving and reasoning involved, and incorporate design or challenge based learning;
  • Align the context with the Victorian Curriculum (especially mathematics, science, design and technology, and/or digital technology); and
  • Provide other teachers in the school with materials and training in both the knowledge and processes needed to understand the contexts, as well as advice for how the context can be linked with the curriculum, and evaluation practices that pertain to both student learning outcomes and teacher knowledge and practice.


Australian Industry Group (2013), Lifting our Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Skills. Australian Industry Group, viewed 28 September 2015,

Clarke, D (2015) Putting STEM to Work: From Concern to re-Construction, unpublished paper.

Education Council. (2015) National STEM School Education Strategy: A comprehensive plan for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in Australia. Canberra: Council of Australian Governments

Office of the Chief Scientist (2014a), Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future. Australian Government, Canberra, viewed 22 September 2015,

Office of the Chief Scientist (2014b), Benchmarking Australian Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Australian Government, Canberra, viewed 22 September 2015,

Scientix (2014), Scientix. The Community for science education in Europe, European Schoolnet: Brussels, viewed 13 October 2015,

Thomson, S., Hillman, K., Wernert, N., Schmid, M., Buckley, S., & Munene, A. (2012). Highlights from TIMSS & PIRLS 2011 from Australia’s perspective. Melbourne: ACER

Tytler, R. & Waldrip, B. (2001). Effective teaching and learning in Science: Expanding the territory. Position Statement 4; Working Paper of the Science in Schools Research Project.

Vasquez, JA (2014) 'STEM Beyond the Acronym', Educational Leadership, 72, 4, p. 10, MAS Ultra - School Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 17 March 2016.