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STEM growth: Getting students interested in the sciences
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STEM growth: Getting students interested in the sciences

Research 7 minute read

Research suggests real-world problem solving and game-based learning can encourage participation and learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as Deirdre Jackson reports.

STEM growth: Getting students interested in the sciences

Graduates with skills in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields contribute significantly to the Australian economy. An ABS study for the Office of Chief Scientist found that STEM-related occupations grew at one-and-a-half times the rate of other occupations between 2006 and 2011. As Australia further develops into a knowledge-based economy, the contribution of the STEM workforce becomes increasingly important.

While the need for STEM experts is growing, the proportions of students studying maths and science in senior secondary school has been declining, particularly among girls, leading to fewer students prepared for post-secondary study in STEM fields. An OECD report published in February 2014 notes that, across all OECD countries, an average of 14 per cent of women enrolled in STEM-related courses in the higher education sector, compared to 39 per cent of men. A national survey conducted in 2013 by Graduate Careers Australia revealed that, while slightly more women than men completed courses in the biological sciences, women’s participation in computer sciences and engineering remains significantly below that of men.

The challenge is to find ways to encourage and engage students to study STEM subjects in senior school and beyond. To this end, the Australian STEM Video Game Challenge is being established by ACER with a view to encouraging girls and students from disadvantaged backgrounds to develop interest in study and employment in these fields.

Engaging students in learning STEM

A large part of the problem in keeping students studying STEM subjects lies in showing them the need for and applications of STEM knowledge beyond the classroom.

Focus groups involving 30 Australian senior school students, conducted by ACER in 2014 as part of an Australian Workplace Productivity Agency engineering workforce study, revealed that the inclusion of hands-on, visible activities that place learning in real-world contexts are important for sparking an interest in STEM at secondary school level.

Students expressed interest in understanding how theoretical concepts learned in maths classes can be practically applied. As one student noted, teachers ‘mainly concentrate on teaching the course, not how it relates to real life or jobs.’

Role models who represent the diversity of the population were also seen as important, particularly for breaking down stereotypes of the engineering workforce, while careers advice and booklets provided to students were not seen as very helpful – instead the experiences of the students suggested that real engagement is more visceral.

The feedback from focus groups supported the research literature on the benefits of integrating engineering experiences within the school curriculum, which include:

  • helping students understand how to apply the engineering design process in solving real-world problems as they learn to think creatively, critically, flexibly and visually, and to troubleshoot and learn from failure;
  • helping students appreciate how their learning in mathematics and science can apply to the solution of important real-world engineering problems;
  • highlighting the relevance of studying mathematics and physical sciences, leading to better preparedness for senior subjects; and
  • helping students appreciate the usefulness of various fields of engineering and the role of the engineer in society.

Applying learning to real-world problems is beneficial not only at school but also at university.

ACER’s Digital Education Research Network (DERN) recently reviewed a research paper that examined 225 studies to compare the differences in undergraduate student performance in STEM courses between traditional lecturing, or ‘teaching by telling’, and active learning that engages students in the process of learning through activities or discussions that emphasise higher-order thinking.

The paper’s authors found that student performance increased with active learning compared to lecturing. The authors also found that active learning significantly benefits STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and female students in male-dominated fields.

While the research evidence seems clear on the importance of ‘learning by doing’, the question remains how to engage students in STEM in the school classroom.

One method for schools and teachers to consider is involvement in the inaugural Australian STEM Video Game Challenge. Inspired by the United States’ National STEM Video Game Challenge, which has been run by the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre at Sesame Workshop and E-Line Media annually since 2010, the challenge is designed to develop skills and engagement with STEM areas through fun, creativity, problem solving and ingenuity. The free competition sees participants design, build and submit an original educational video game that includes STEM content or themes.

Teaching STEM through gaming and game-making

The use of video games for learning is already widespread. Another recent DERN research review highlighted that around 70 per cent of the 700 teachers surveyed in a recent study used digital games in the classroom, more than half doing so at least once a week. The survey also showed widespread acceptance of the practice, with only 14 per cent of teachers reporting opposition to the use of games from administrators and only nine per cent reporting opposition from parents.

The power of games to motivate struggling students and special education students was found to be the most valuable aspect of using digital games in the classroom, according to the teachers surveyed in the study. Low-performing students were seen to benefit most from the use of games, followed by the view that all students benefited equally.

Exactly why video games aid learning is now the subject of neuroscientific research. In his keynote address to ACER’s Research Conference 2013, Paul Howard Jones said the research literature shows that action video games enhance a range of cognitive functions because they generate a response in our brains associated with attention but also with ‘synaptoplasticity’ – the brain basis of learning.

The STEM Video Game Challenge takes the concept of game-based learning one step further by having students design the game itself. There is a growing body of research that suggests creating video games can be a highly engaging way for children to learn a range of STEM skills, scientific concepts and scientific thinking, as well as learn to think creatively and artistically, reason systematically and problem-solve.

Several studies suggest that game design shows promise as an innovative way to teach STEM skills to children from groups that are underrepresented in STEM fields, including girls and disadvantaged children, particularly when they are mentored and the game design experience is tailored to their interests. In this way, the STEM Video Game Challenge aims to engage girls and disadvantaged children in STEM studies and employment, and increase interest and participation from all students throughout Australia.

Further information:
The Australian STEM Video Games Challenge is presented by the ACER Foundation. Registrations for the inaugural Australian STEM Video Game Challenge close on 31 July and entries close on 30 September 2014. To find out more about the challenge, including how you can become involved as a participant, mentor or sponsor, visit <>

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