Building STEM skills

July 05, 2016

Tanya Monro, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research and Innovation at the University of South Australia, discusses why STEM skills are key to Australia’s prosperity.

STEM skills

There has been a lot of talk about the need to get more students studying STEM skills –science, technology, engineering and mathematics – to equip them for the jobs of tomorrow. For Australia to have the right mix of high value jobs and industries to maintain or improve our quality of life, we need more people with the digital and data-related skills that these jobs require.

A natural assumption would be that the reason we need to encourage students to study science and other STEM skills is to boost our research clout – the cohort of technically trained people within Australia’s university and publicly funded research laboratories. While of course Australia’s research capabilities are a pivotal element of our innovation ecosystem, this misses the point.

In my view, the areas where we desperately need more graduates with STEM skills include industry, government, politics and the entrepreneurial domain.

The ability to use complex data to make evidence-based decisions has never been more critical for decision-making – whether that be in the corporate boardroom, the executive suite, or the cabinet room. Most of the global challenges we face – from climate change to cyber crime – require a sophisticated understanding of STEM and basic STEM skills.

Technology offers solutions to many emerging problems. But experience from the nuclear debate to genetically modified crops tells us that when communities aren’t equipped with a good understanding of the scientific process and complexities behind these issues, it is extraordinarily difficult to secure the societal license required to introduce transformative technological solutions.

But the kicker is entrepreneurship – where young people have some of the best opportunities to harness rapidly emerging technological disruption to create high-value jobs. There is no question that many of these opportunities come from the STEM disciplines. We need to create opportunities where young people studying STEM skills are exposed to entrepreneurial ecosystems, have the chance to see first–hand what it takes and give it a go.

“We can’t afford to wait for more girls to select these traditionally male-dominated careers – we need to be proactive in creating pathways and incentives for girls to enter these fields.”

There are some STEM fields where we need to focus serious effort on getting more girls to engage. In particular, IT and engineering. Both areas are so critical to Australia’s future that we simply can’t afford to be building on half our talent base.

We can’t afford to wait for more girls to select these traditionally male-dominated careers. We need to be proactive in creating pathways and incentives for girls to enter these fields. We also need to provide much better systems and cultures to retain our capable women in STEM and research.

One simple thing we can do is profile and celebrate those female role models who are currently making an impact and are the top of their game in these STEM fields. The recently launched SAGE initiative will be pivotal in helping address the dire under-representation of women at the most senior levels in Australia’s universities and research organisations.

It’s worth noting that research, development, innovation and discovery are all about building from what’s already known. They’re about asking new questions and connecting existing knowledge. This is, at its heart, a creative process. We can’t forget that one of the critical elements in nurturing our most outstanding future engineers and scientists lies in supporting children to engage in the creative arts alongside STEM.

Tanya Monro

Deputy Vice Chancellor Research and Innovation, University of South Australia

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