Dealing with Australia’s STEM shortage

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An Australian program, which links schools with industry in a collaborative environment, is successfully engaging students in an engineering future. Alan Johnson reports.

By any measure, it’s clear that Australia is not producing enough engineers to maintain our high standard of living. And with the expansion of our high-end manufacturing sector it is about to get a lot worse.

The problem is Australia’s workforce is ageing and the development of technical skills is not keeping pace with the retirements. We have a static rate of graduates, high dropout rates and lower and lower numbers of secondary students interested in completing the required maths and science to enter engineering.

Globally, things don’t look much brighter. More than 50 per cent of the world’s engineering graduates come from Asia and while migration assists us in the short term, the massive population and domestic economic development in India and China means we’ll find it harder to compete. Signs of the economic recovery in the US will just add to the pressure.

However, one not-for-profit social enterprise, Re-Engineering Australia Foundation (REA), is working hard to overcome the problem, whose objectives are to encourage students to have an interest and understanding of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) careers. Its slogan is ‘Committed to building a better Australia’.

Dr Michael Myers OAM, founder and CEO of REA and one of Australia’s most influential engineers, said REA’s goal is to equip children with the skills and knowledge to allow them to take on the world.

“It is imperative that we inspire, equip and guide the younger generations to be innovators, to embrace world-best technology, to expand their world view and to believe that they can make a difference,” Dr Myers said.

REA’s revolutionary programs link schools, industry, TAFE, universities and parents in a collaborative environment focused on changing the metaphor of the education process.

“Our unique ‘applied learning’ technical programs, backed by extensive research, are changing the education paradigm.

“We have discovered how to excite and mentor young boys and girls so that they embrace learning and technology far beyond their years.”

Dr Myers, an engineer, businessman and passionate Australian, has produced an enormous amount of in-the-field research with high school students proving that hands-on applied learning is more effective than conventional classroom teaching methods.

REA has been leading Australian industry to understand just how important STEM education is to Australia’s future for the past 17 years. In particular, it has been showing how important STEM knowledge is to the future of our children in a world of dramatic change from disruptive technologies.

“STEM is not about more maths and more science. STEM is curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics -in an interdisciplinary and applied approach.

“Rather than teach the four disciplines as separate and discrete subjects, STEM integrates them into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications and real world problem solving.

“STEM education is a dramatic paradigm shift in education creating dramatically more capable students and catalysing innovation in dramatically more enjoyable learning environments,” Dr Myers explained.

“Since we began our journey to promote STEM in 1998, we have been beating the drum for the need for more STEM skilled young people in industry with the capacity to catapult innovation. We then went a step further by implementing STEM programs in schools across Australia that make these goals a reality.”

So far REA has mentored over 500,000 Australian students through these STEM activities with tremendous success.

“We have taken our Australian students onto the world stage and they have proven themselves to be the best STEM students in the world,” Dr Myers said.

Engineering programs

REA has pioneered a number of innovative engineering and manufacturing programs for students.

Of these, the F1 in Schools Technology Challenge, is the oldest and largest having been started in 2003 and having more than 45,000 students mentored each year with another 300,000 benefiting from the technology outcomes by making use of the 3D CAD/CAM software, simulation software, 3-axis CNC machines but not engaged in the competition itself.

F1 in Schools is the biggest technology program on the planet involving 17,000 schools in over 30 nations and more than 9,000,000 students.

Students are tasked with designing and building miniature balsa F1 cars capable of reaching 0-80kph in under 2 seconds. They are powered by a common CO2 canister.

The students must master 3D design and aerodynamics software and are able to increase the aerodynamics and performance of the cars by designing and making 3D printed parts such as nose cones, winglets, spoilers, wheels.

They can also reduce friction by utilising tiny precious stones from watchmakers and jewellers or high quality bearings.

CNC machining centres, designed specifically for classroom use, enable students to understand the connection between design and manufacture. The machined cars are assembled and aerodynamically tested in desktop smoke and wind tunnels.

F1 in Schools is not just about designing and making the car. The car is the initial ‘attraction’ to the mathematical and scientific discipline of engineering and manufacturing, and gives the students the reason to learn.

They start with the outcome, the quickest and most energy efficient F1 car of the future, and then go in search of the necessary tools to achieve that outcome.

Students who have had little interest in STEM subjects suddenly work through lunch periods and ask teachers if they can stay back in the evening and work through their school holidays.

The program incorporates team building, project management, marketing, design innovation, being able to explain the engineering and manufacturing outcomes in a detailed 20-page portfolio, and writing and presentation skills. At regional, state and national finals the teams are judged in 11 areas by engineers, academics and industry professionals.

In order to deliver STEM-based projects to even younger students and develop their excitement for designing products, REA has introduced a primary age version of the F1 program.

REA has also introduced, an even greater challenge for F1 in Schools “graduates”, a completely different design-to-manufacture discipline; 4X4 in Schools.

Dr Myers also has many other programs on the drawing board, including subs in schools, solar railways and an energy-focused program, all designed to encourage students to engage in an engineering future.