Alan Finkel: Why we need hands-on STEM in the classroom

April 11 2018

Ten years ago, Chief Scientist of Australia and former Academy President Dr Alan Finkel spearheaded STELR – an Academy initiative bringing relevant applications of STEM to secondary schools. He reflects on a decade of STELR’s pioneering success.

I had only just been elected a Fellow. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, I agreed to attend the education committee meeting with Don Watts (Chair), Vaughan Beck, Bruce Kean and Mike Murray. In front of us was a stack of papers describing the 200 or so known extracurricular science and technology activities for Australian school students.

The problem? Performance and participation rates were down; there were insufficient primary and secondary school teachers with a science degree; job security in science careers was perceived by high school students to be marginal; and the science curriculum at schools did not engage the interest of many of our brightest students.

The challenge? A contribution by the Academy, perhaps by recommending or backing one or more of the existing programs.

This was all new to me, and I had only just retired from being the CEO of a Silicon Valley company. So with the naivety of a new recruit and the brashness of the Valley, I asked: what’s the point? If collectively these 200 activities had not helped so far, we needed to do something different.

“So smarty pants, what would you do?” was the appropriate response from the committee members. Stuck for an answer – but not one to shy away from a schoolyard dare – I spent the weekend web searching, learning and writing up a proposal.

The key, I discovered, was relevance. Our kids were growing up in a wealthy, comfortable society. Complacency was knocking at the door. Far from being under pressure from their parents to be a doctor or a lawyer (which was the encouragement I had from my immigrant parents), their parents were encouraging them to follow their passion.

Passion often comes from a calling for the arts, music or sport, but for many young people, it comes from the dream of growing up to solve real-world problems.

Young people then and today are extremely concerned about the future of their planet and how their adult life will be affected by climate change

Wondering what was in the minds of our school students, I found the answers in the 2006 Australian Childhood Foundation survey. Top of the list was the death of parents, second was being bullied at school and third was climate change.

After perusing many reports and long discussions with fellow Fellow Vaughan Beck, I proposed a co-curricular activity called Science Education Leveraging Extremely Relevant Technology (SELERT) to build on the theme of renewable energy.

This theme was chosen not only because it was a suitable complement to the core science courses but also, more importantly, because renewable energy is a significant weapon in our fight against global warming. This resonates with school students – young people then and today are extremely concerned about the future of their planet and how their adult life will be affected by climate change.

The SELERT initiative had two goals. First, to capture the interest of engaged students who might consider a science or engineering career. Second, to introduce all students to real-world science and technology, so that even if they did not choose a science or engineering career, at least they had an appreciation for the power of science.

To meet the second goal, it was essential that the decision to participate was at the school level, so that when the school put up its hand to take part every student in Year 8 or Year 9 was in the program.

The Education Committee agreed it was appropriate for the Academy to develop a program, and that it should be at a national scale. We further decided that to truly engage the students, there should be a hands-on component. We had to develop a kit of equipment for every school.

This was way beyond the Academy’s capability. After recruiting Peter Pentland to the project, Peter recommended Bernard Hodson at Industrial Equipment and Control. Bernard had years of experience making school laboratory equipment and had built large Van der Graf generators for Peter to use in the Lightning Room at Scienceworks. We brainstormed our needs with Bernard and he and his IEC colleagues turned our dreams into virtually breakproof kits for solar, wind and hydro experiments.

But equipment, context and content were not enough. We knew teachers were central, thus there was a need to provide professional development. In this we were helped by Russell Tytler and Peter Hubber at Deakin University.

By 2008, we were running a proof-of-concept trial in four Victorian schools, half funded by the Victorian Government, thanks to the initiative of then Secretary and Deputy Secretary, Peter Dawkins and Tony Cook. The other half was funded by the philanthropic generosity of our Fellows. There was also a top-up forthcoming on the request of our President Robin Batterham from the Academy of Science from their Science by Doing program.

And I had thought of a new name. STELR. All that remained was to think of words to rationalise the acronym, and the program became Science and Technology Education Leveraging Relevance.

In a presentation to Fellows in 2007, I said:

  • When conventional experiments are taught, students often ask, “So what?” STELR will use extremely relevant technology to teach fundamental principles of science.
  • A classic billiard ball experiment is just science; a STELR wind turbine experiment is science with a job prospect.
  • Advances in science rely on technology, so why not use technology to help teach science?

By 2008 Peter Pentland was in his stride as the program manager. I stayed deeply involved for several more years and then happily withdrew, leaving the program in the excellent hands of Peter, Margaret Hartley and Pennie Stoyles.

I am delighted that there are now approximately 660 Australian STELR schools (nearly a quarter of all secondary schools in Australia) and nearly 40 international STELR schools.

As a footnote, today I am chairing a project for the State, Territory and Commonwealth Education Ministers to look into optimising the ways in which schools partner with industry to teach STEM. I’ve participated in consultations in every state and territory and, among many themes, one that consistently emerges is the need for science teaching to have relevance. And so it was, and so it is, and so it will be.

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Alan Finkel

Chief Scientist of Australia

Dr Alan Finkel AO FAA FTSE became Australia’s eighth Chief Scientist on 25 January 2016. He has an extensive science background as an entrepreneur, engineer, neuroscientist and educator.

Before becoming Chief Scientist, he was the eighth Chancellor of Monash University and the eighth President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

Dr Finkel was awarded his PhD in electrical engineering from Monash University and worked as a postdoctoral research fellow in neuroscience at the Australian National University. In 1983 he founded Axon Instruments, an ASX-listed company that made precision scientific instruments. He is also a co-founder of Cosmos Magazine.