What is STEM and why does it matter?
Shell’s sponsorship of the Shell Questacon Science Circus is designed to inspire and excite students to study subjects that cover science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Educators call these subjects ‘STEM’, for short.
In our increasingly high-tech society, forecasts suggest that up to eight in ten jobs of the future will require these skills. Simply put, science means jobs for the future.
Despite this, the popularity of these subjects is on the slide. The fact is students choosing these subjects has hit a 20-year low.
The Shell Questacon Science Circus is one visible way Shell can take its enthusiasm for science to the field. In a conscious effort to ensure students from regional Australia don’t miss out, the science circus travels to country towns.
“We know that we can open people’s minds to the relevance and application of science to everyday life,” says Questacon’s Deputy Director, Science and Learning, Dr Bobby Cerini.
“There’s so much more available to city kids than country kids, and if you’re remote or very remote, it’s even more difficult.
“So, one of the ways to overcome that is to get programs out into the community,” she says.
Dr Cerini says teachers report a spike in students’ interest in science around the time a circus visit comes to town.
“You can see engagement as it’s happening in real time with the science circus. And we know from anecdotal experience that students do get inspired by the experiences with the circus, whether it’s the shows or the exhibition, and then select STEM subjects and then go on to study science degrees,” she says.
Megan Danslow, a science, maths and biology teacher at Chinchilla State High School, aims to make science accessible for students, too.
“We try to link things into the real world as much as possible, to get students seeing science where possible through videos, or experiments or the real world, and then getting them to come up with questions and, going from there, then trying to answer those questions,” she says.
At Miles State High School, science course coordinator Grace Laudon says her school’s emphasis is trying to get students interested in science-related subject in middle school particularly, so that students will carry on with science subjects in final years and beyond.
“If we can get that key interest early on…they’ll have no problems applying what they’ve learned here to the jobs they might go into later in life,” she says. “We’re trying to give them the basic skills they need to be able to do what they want to do when they get older.”
As a technology-based company that has been innovating for more than a century, Shell’s partnership with Questacon seeks to help a new generation of students and teachers build the skills and confidence to take on these subjects.
“We know that we can create really positive experiences with science,” Dr Cerini says. “We know we can place really strong role models in schools and give students a chance to meet a young scientist and to have a sense of what it might mean to be one.”
The travelling science circus provides this face-to-face encounter with young scientists. The circus presenters themselves are post-graduate students, studying Science Communication Outreach at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University.
“There are so many fields of science, you just have to look at the Shell Questacon Science Circus; we’ve got 16 individuals and we’re all from different backgrounds,” says presenter Leisha Duncan. “We have geologists, engineers, environmental biology, everything you could imagine.
“It’s fantastic that we can bring Questacon out to these regional areas of Australia when they might not have the opportunity to travel down to Canberra and have a look at it.”
Fellow presenter Jeshka McConnell says the circus is about asking questions and looking for answers.
“We’re scientists delivering science in a different way. The most important part though, is trying to inspire that critical thinking, search for truth, ask questions of the right people and trust people and communicate with each other. It’s about inspiring critical thinking.”
Questacon’s Dr Cerini says teacher professional learning workshops aim to provide practical tips and a professional peer network to support confident and engaging teaching of science in classrooms.
“We’ve done a lot of work with teachers,” she says. “We know that we can build the confidence of teachers.
“Happy, confident teachers who have access to resources will be people who keep this happening in the community day to day.”
Dr Cerini points to the kinds of skills the Chinchilla region needs to thrive now and tomorrow; engineers, scientists and people with technical skills − something Chinchilla State High School teacher Megan Downslow is acutely aware of, too.
“Science is what’s going to make our world ultimately a better place,” Megan says.