By Deslyn Taylor, NCWQ Education Advisor

STEM Update

Girls are becoming recognised in STEM fields. In my last report I spoke of the number of women acknowledged in Australia but this is a world wide phenomenon. For the first time in
history girls have won all top 5 prizes in the National STEM Competition in the US.

However despite receiving accolades in many fields women only occupy 15% of the top positions in research facilities. If we wish to encourage girls to aim for STEM careers then we need to address this apparent gender discrimination in research organisations and the workforce. With the number of brilliant women being recognised maybe this will slowly occur. Here are some experiences from a variety of women:-

  • “In my experience, gender discrimination isn’t rampant at an early career stage. But a glance around any research organisation tells me that along the way, something is happening that discriminates against the progression of women in research careers. In fact I’ve been told that although similar numbers of women and men graduate with PhDs, we fill only 15% of the highest academic ranks.” (
  • “International mobility is regarded as a critical step in career progression for a successful researcher. I spent 10 years establishing a career, completing a PhD at University College London followed by postdoctoral training at the University of Edinburgh. I had a strong and diverse scientific network in the UK, Europe, and America, yet upon returning…

    Unfortunately, my extensive overseas experience hasn’t translated in regard to pay or job security in Australia.”

  • “I now know why so many promising and established researchers leave Academia. It is hard, sometimes too hard, to face the uncertainty over and over again. The incredible stress of not knowing if you are good enough to be funded eats away at you, even after receiving funding there is little joy or excitement, just relief you have survived another round. Many decide it is just too much to keep going. I get it now. The penny has dropped. (

Not only women are affected. Researchers are usually on 12 month contracts and if funding is cancelled then they may lose their position. This does not encourage our brightest minds to make a career as a researcher in a STEM field or in fact in any field. This is a problem when we are trying to encourage this.

Approaches in schools

The 7 most important STEM skills as decided by some STEM experts are:-

“1. Statistics
“If I were to choose one specific discipline for students to study, it would be statistics, a course that can be applied across all STEM fields. You don’t need higher levels of calculus or physics for all STEM careers, but you do need statistics. A deep understanding of statistics means understanding probability and error rates, concepts that cut across almost any type of problem you want to solve in STEM.”

—Gregg Fleisher, president, National Math and Science Initiative, Dallas, Texas

2. Problem-Solving
“What binds together the STEM movement is the notion of modern skills. Employers talk about problem-solving. Society requires problem-solving. Doing your taxes requires problem-solving.
Those are the types of skills that really matter. A practicing engineer will tell you, ‘I didn’t use the calculus I learned to solve problems on paper, but the way it taught me to solve problems and to think about problems was really important.’”

—James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition in Washington, D.C., and a nuclear engineer by training

3. Creativity
“Creativity can be simple and complex at the same time. We don’t always teach to think outside of the box. You’ve got to look at a problem from a different perspective sometimes.Teachers can nurture this by asking open-ended questions. In math and science, you can show different models so students get varying ideas of how it might look to bring together one idea. Or don’t show a model at all and leave it a little open-ended so they have to come up with a solution on their own. Ask: ‘Why do you think this is?’ Reflecting and explaining what they did to solve a problem can foster creativity and teach collaboration another important skill.”

—Jenny Nash, education specialist with LEGO Education in Boston, former middle school teacher and teacher-preparation instructor

4. Argumentation
“The act of arguing is using evidence to support a claim. In the STEM fields, this means using analytical and critical-thinking skills to look for patterns in data, trying to determine what those
patterns mean, and then using that data to support a claim. This skill transfers across all disciplines. In an elementary school science class, for example, if you give students a lot of different experiences with noisemakers—everything from tuning forks to speakers to whoopee cushions—they have the experience of collecting data. And then they will be able to use that data to make the argument that sounds are caused by vibrations.”

—Eric Brunsell, associate professor of science education and director of the teacher education program at University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

5. Intellectual Curiosity
“The days of coming into an organization and having the same role forever are over. Many people will have two-year stints and then are moved into a different role. That’s the nature of modern career paths. Beyond mastering content, individuals need to be innovators, learn from failures and keep moving on. You need to cut across disciplines and be able to ask the questions that help build connections. People need to be lifelong learners and be driven by an intellectual curiosity to try to figure things out.”

—Ted Wells, vice president and chief strategy officer at STEMconnector®, in Washington, D.C.

6. Data-Driven Decision-Making
“Students need to be able to make a decision not just based on what they think or feel, but on scientific data that supports the best solution. Everyone needs to know how to do this. It doesn’t matter whether you go on to a career in STEM or not—you need to know how to use data to make informed decisions in your life.”

—Stacy Klein-Gardner, director of Center for STEM Education for Girls at Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a biomedical engineer and on faculty at Vanderbilt University.

7. Flexibility
“People are now required to adapt quickly to new demands and new situations. They need quantitative skills to manipulate data well. They need to be able to communicate clearly. There is a broad set of skills that, I would argue, everyone needs. Just look at the sheer number of people in manufacturing who were skilled at what they did but who now need a whole new set of skills, often late in their careers, to be viable in the job market. They need to know statistics, technology, quality control. They need to understand programming and systems to ensure the automated production technology is operating correctly. The trick for teachers is to give their students authentic problems to tackle in school, problems that require students to draw on different areas of knowledge and skill.”

—Claus von Zastrow, chief operating officer and director of research for Change the Equationin Washington, D.C. “(

You will note that many of these skills are applicable across a broad range of other subject areas. In looking at how to acquire these skills I came across 2 sites with two different approaches to teaching and learning:- Constructivism and Cognitive Load Theory. I include the links. A combination of the two is probably the best option. Finally in response to Jennifer Davies report re Reading for Meaning I would totally agree that parents should read to children and that all children should be encouraged to read as early as possible.

This webpage offered 10 effective ways of improving Reading Comprehension. I still use many if not most of these methods especially if I’m studying.

STEM and Literacy are strongly linked.

“The STEM disciplines require the interpretation of technical texts, a vast knowledge of content specific vocabulary, critical thinking, and the ability to clearly communicate these complex concepts to others verbally and in writing. All of these skills are developed through literacy based instruction. By integrating literacy and STEM, children can become strong readers while exploring topics that may pique their interest in STEM.” (

Perhaps if our leaders had some of these skills our world would be in a better position.

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