STEM Education and the Water Industry

Published 13 February 2017
Written by Nonie Taylor

Lizard island
When I was at school I wanted to make a difference with my life. I hated the idea that there were people in the world who did not have access to clean drinking water and sanitation, and that is what drew me to engineering and the water industry. After university, I spent 13 years in the water industry, working for a major water utility in Sydney. I enjoyed my work. I knew every day that I was making a difference. However, something became increasingly apparent to me: we need good people to solve the problems we will face – people with passion for what they do, the ability to sink their teeth into difficult problems and come up with new solutions. This need sent me back to university, and into high school education, with the desire to ‘win’ more people over to the STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. In this article I am going to address three questions: 

  • What is STEM Education?
  • What has STEM got to do with the water industry?
  • How can STEM education be done well?

 

So what is STEM Education?

STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. In today’s society, STEM is all around us – the way our food is produced, the way we connect with our friends and families, our health, our jobs, our leisure are all “profoundly shaped by technological innovation and the discoveries of science.” 1 In addition, 75% of the fastest growing occupations require STEM skills and knowledge.1 As a nation, we need our school graduates to have a greater understanding of STEM subjects if they are going to be prepared for the future ahead.

STEM
Source: Office of the Chief Scientist 2013, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in the National Interest: A Strategic Approach, Australian Government, Canberra

Sadly, however, there has been a decline in students choosing STEM subjects in school, so as a nation we’re not equipping ourselves with the skillset we need to carry Australia into the future (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Year 12 Students studying STEM 1992 & 2010

STEM
     
The Government has identified this as a major issue for the future of Australia, and has committed over $17 million through a variety of initiatives to restore the focus on and increase the update of STEM subjects in primary and secondary schools. Why? To equip young adults with the necessary skills for the economy of the future.

What has STEM education got to do with the water industry?

STEM Education is important to our nation as a whole, but now let’s think about STEM in the context of the water industry.

There are a number of challenges that have been identified as specific to the water industry. Limited resources, environmental pressures and population growth mean we will need a workforce that is more innovative and willing to try new ideas. Increased automation of the water industry means we will need a workforce that is increasingly technical. Finally, the issues with attraction and retention of employees to more lucrative industries (such as mining), and loss of ‘in-house’ knowledge as a result of the aging workforce means that the water industry needs to be able to attract and keep the right people with the right skillset.2,3

We are facing a skills shortage in STEM subjects at the same time as there is more pressure on us to do more with less, to be more innovative, with less impact on the environment, and with new technologies.

We also need to have an industry that attracts the right people – we need great minds, great communicators, great decision makers and great interpersonal skills. We need to give opportunities for people to see what the water industry does and why it is an exciting place to work.

We also need to be able to communicate the issues the water industry faces with the public in a way which is relevant to and makes sense to them.

STEM education is critical to the future of our industry.

How can STEM Education be done well?

There are some general strategies which have been demonstrated to increase students’ engagement with STEM subjects. They include:

  • Engagement from a young age – it is often too late in high school to start getting students interested in STEM subjects. I’m amazed at how many Year 7 students have already decided that science is too hard and that they don’t like it. 
  • Integration across the curriculum – where STEM education does not just happen in the Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths classrooms, but rather incorporated throughout the school curriculum.
  • Project Based Learning – rather than subjects being taught separately, students learn through solving a problem that spans across subject areas. 
    - For example, at Barker College students engage in a CO2 dragster project where they use IT software to visualise their projects, Mathematics for graphing and calculating speed, Science to understand the forces involved and benefits of streamlining, Design and Technology to design and construct their project, and English to write their instructions. Students are supported by teachers from the various subject areas, but learn to see the separate subjects as interlinked to achieve the final product. 
    - Another example is the Hotbox Composting project where students design a box for composting which they then need to market. This project incorporates the programming of controls to monitor temperature, moisture content and ventilation. Students draw on knowledge gained from Agriculture and also Economics and Commercial Studies to plan their marketing.
  • Connections with Industry – a great strategy for STEM education, and particularly one which would be a great opportunity for the water industry, is to give students the opportunity to work with ‘real-world’ STEM professionals. 
    - An example could be through working with local council to investigate a local waterway together. The Water Education Network has put together some resources for investigating local waterways that councils or other water industry partners could utilise with schools. 
    - At Barker College, the Sydney University Marine Research Station at Lizard Island partners with Year 11 Biology students to contribute to the long term survey programs. Students get to see scientists in action, and the research station benefits through the assistance provided by the students.
    - CSIRO runs a ‘Scientists in Schools’ program where STEM professionals can visit schools and share their experience.

 

Conclusion

STEM education is critical to the future of our nation, and more specifically to the water industry.  Organisations need to consider the role that they are playing in supplying the future with enthusiastic, passionate, water industry professionals who have the right set of skills to face the challenges of the future. We need to ask ‘what kind of water professionals do we want for the future?’, and ‘what role can I play in finding them?’

References

1 Office of the Chief Scientist 2013, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in the National Interest: A Strategic Approach, Australian Government, Canberra, accessed 20 April 2016, http://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/STEMstrategy290713FINALweb.pdf
2 Australian Water Association 2012, Water Industry Skills Taskforce - National Skills Forum Report, Nous Group, Sydney.
3 Department of the Environment 2009, National Water Skills Strategy, Australian Government, Canberra, accessed 20 April 2016, http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/d97a452b-c31f-4660-929f-4540c84fdaad/files/national-water-skills-strategy.pdf.

Additional Reading

Department of Education and Training 2015, Restoring the focus on STEM in schools initiative, Australian Government, Canberra, accessed 21 April 2016, www.studentsfirst.gov.au/restoring-focus-stem-schools-initiative.

Kennedy, J, Lyons, T & Quinn, F 2014, ‘The continuing decline of science and mathematics enrolments in Australian high schools’, Teaching Science, vol. 60, no. 2, June 2014, pp.34-46.

Water Services Association of Australia – An Assessment of the skills shortage in the urban water industry, 2008