Science and technology | Australia

30 August 2016

Government support for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is critical to future economic growth, but Australia lags behind other nations in implementing the tools needed to ensure initiatives succeed, Brody Hannan writes.

With the return of the Coalition Government in Canberra, it’s very likely we’ll see its Inspiring all Australians in Digital Literacy and STEM initiative continue as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda. While programs to encourage STEM engagement are indispensable, Australia lacks the standardised evaluation tools to effectively measure their success, jeopardising their implementation from the outset.

The aim of the allocated $65 million of funding is to support a number of initiatives across Australia that seek to increase the participation of young Australians in STEM and improve their digital literacy.

But without standardised psychosocial evaluation tools, like those used in the United States, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, the Australian Government could be spending millions of taxpayer dollars on programs that may have little or no success.

Psychosocial assessments are important indicators of STEM engagement, because unlike cognitive assessments – which measure the improvement in a student’s scientific knowledge – they track attitudes and motivations towards STEM. These include indicators such as educator confidence in teaching STEM, or a student’s enhanced motivation to study STEM in the future. These confidence and attitudinal factors are particularly important, as according to the Chief Scientist, Australia’s future workforce will require high STEM engagement and literacy to sustain economic growth.

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Looking abroad there are numerous programs that seek to enhance students’ and teachers’ digital skills, and engage students in STEM careers including the Manaiakalani Digital Teaching Academy in New Zealand, the National Network of Science Learning Centres in the UK, and the Discovery Research K-12 grant program in the US. These programs align with the priorities of the Australian Government’s Digital Literacy and STEM plan. They are all government supported, but unlike Australian programs, they use a combination of cognitive and psychosocial assessments in their evaluations.

But despite the similarities in STEM engagement programs, there is no Australian equivalent of the psychosocial assessments used overseas. The Australian Parliamentary Library only includes cognitive assessments in its list of assessments used for student achievement statistics, and the Australian Council for Educational Research, which conducts research and development projects for both government and non-government education programs, does not list psychosocial assessments in its list of school assessments either.

In New Zealand and the US, psychosocial tests such as Me and My School, and the S-STEM and T-STEM assessments from the MISO project of the National Science Foundation provide standardised, free and government-endorsed assessments for STEM education initiatives to measure students’ and teachers’ attitudes and confidence towards STEM.

Without such standardised psychosocial evaluation tools, any initiative in Australia that seeks to enhance STEM engagement is doomed to uncertain and disparate measures of its success. This could result in STEM initiatives being evaluated against markedly different criteria, using varying assessments and evaluation tools – leading to unfair or inaccurate evaluations.

With such a sizeable investment about to be made in a new series of STEM initiatives, the Australian Government should look towards similar programs in the US, UK, and New Zealand to model effective evaluation methods. The Government should develop standardised STEM psychosocial assessments to ensure the consistent evaluation of such programs to ensure they produce the dividends Australians deserve.

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Hannan, Brody. 2016. "Avoiding A STEM Fail - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.