Science, Technology, Arts, Entrepreneurship and Maths: connecting the dots to redefine modern day learning

By Monique Potts, Acting Director, UTS Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Creative Intelligence Unit

Photo credit: Anna Zhu

Are we doing enough to equip graduates for the changing work environment, and to expose women to STEM?

That’s how UTS Provost and Senior Vice President Andrew Parfitt set the scene at our recent STEAMpunk Girls roundtable, where we hosted representatives from government, industry and education to mark the successful completion of our groundbreaking pilot.

With the future of work and increasing gender equity in STEM being two focus areas for UTS, the launch of STEAMpunk Girls aimed to help answer these two crucial questions.

The girls — 64 from schools across Sydney — have spent the past three months identifying and exploring real world problems through critical, innovative and entrepreneurial thinking. They’ve broken out of a traditional siloed education model to learn in a new interdisciplinary way across Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

We proudly watched them on stage as part of Sydney Science Week to present their solutions: addressing gender inequality in high school through a themed podcast, creating a cleaner school environment through a robotic smart bin and promoting environmental interaction through outdoor learning spaces, to name a few.

We’ve learnt many things along the way too — one of them being how the ‘A’ in STEAM may well be the creative missing link that is helping open up STEM to a new generation of young women. We’ve also been able to expand the definition of ‘STEAM’ and open it up to include the humanities and social sciences through the ‘A’, and entrepreneurship.

Now the pilot has come to a close, we’re ready to take key learnings forward to help make a real change in education and to empower even more young women to develop entrepreneurial mindsets.

What’s really important, however, is to connect the dots between schools, teachers, students, parents and industry to be able to scale the program across Sydney and across NSW, with the right support.

Universities can and should be that connecting force. UTS is committed to playing that role, but we also need to recognise there will be challenges bringing together each of these groups.

Upskilling schools

The shift in what today’s employers are now looking for from their teams are more than just a trend. As a representative from EY noted at our roundtable, they have a need for smart people who can come up with new perspectives and ways of working collaboratively.

With the business landscape, particularly the technology sector, advancing at breakneck speed, our education system must also evolve. Liverpool Girls’ High School’s Head Teacher for Learning Innovations, Katy Lumkin, described at our roundtable how design thinking — shorthand for being solution and user focused — is starting to find a place in the curriculum.

It’s changing how we learn and the purpose of learning — as Katy put it, “Learning that is connected and meaningful will help you to make sense of the maths equations and poetry”.

Katy is one of an emerging breed of teachers who is not only championing a new method of interdisciplinary teaching, but is an advocate of learning that brings external experiences into the classroom. She has already set up a partnership with Sydney Story Factory, for example, to foster creativity and help develop the necessary storytelling skills for learners to build narratives and entrepreneurial skills when pitching their innovative ideas, designs and solutions.

Teaching teachers

But as the Executive Director within NSW Education, Jane Simmons, rightly commented at the roundtable, part of the story is about teaching teachers.

“Not everyone has had the opportunity to be exposed to this kind of thinking or learning. We need to give teachers the opportunity to learn, to help scale this up,” she said.

Liverpool’s Katy Lumkin agreed, emphasising the importance of co-designing programs with teachers and for them to build trust in each other. “Three different people teaching alongside each other is difficult, so you have to shift ways of thinking. You need a safe place to fail,” she said.

This is why one of our key next steps will be to develop a teacher mentoring program in parallel with STEAMpunk Girls. At UTS we are already working with our own education department to introduce interdisciplinary learning methods.

Streamlining pathways for business

Alongside activating schools and teachers, we need to enable businesses to offer their expertise to help upskill young people and make them more valuable to their organisations. Businesses reaching out individually to schools isn’t an effective strategy — we need a coordinated evidence based approach. Universities can play the role of facilitator to offer that.

The easier we make it for industry partners to identify where they will be best placed to support, within a clear, government endorsed framework, the better for all concerned.

We can be that facilitator between education and industry, helping both those sides of the equation deliver with efficiency, consistency and scale.

Taking parents on the journey

We’re not just educating students, but parents too, who may initially be a little taken aback by a model they haven’t heard of before that is a change from traditional learning.

As Liverpool Girls’ High School Year 11 student Amal Al-najam explained, “My parents were a bit unsure at first so I had to talk to them about the benefits of STEAMpunk Girls and the opportunities it can open up. After that they were more understanding. We need to convince parents of the value of the program in the long run.”

This is something Katy Lumkin has already identified, and is aiming to address with the development of a Community Engagement Kit for nine schools within the Liverpool community. We could potentially incorporate something similar within the next iteration of the STEAMpunk Girls program, as it’s important we take parents on the journey with us.

Celebrating our STEAMpunks

Through STEAMpunk Girls, we aim to create pathways for young women through high school, university and into industry where they can bring their talents in technology, science and maths, as well as their creativity, empathy and lateral thinking to their study and work.

Our pilot students have embraced this and we now have our graduate STEAMpunks ready to take on the world. They are excited for the future and ready to create their own study and career pathways. They are energised and empowered, and so are we, and we’re ready to start connecting all the dots.

So what’s next? We will be working with our STEAMpunks to make some of their ideas a reality, and to further help them develop that entrepreneurial mindset. We’re looking for industry partners to come on board, and for government support to help roll the program out to more schools. By leveraging our joint capabilities, we can help reshape the future of education and women in STEM.

If you’d like to get involved, email steampunkgirls@uts.edu.au or sign up to receive updates here.

Click here for more information on the program.

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