Opinion | Well-rounded debate needed into role of STEM education

NATIONAL DEBATE: Well-rounded debate is needed about well-rounded education.
NATIONAL DEBATE: Well-rounded debate is needed about well-rounded education.

The state Minister for Education, Rob Stokes, recently attracted outrage after his Balmoral Lecture on the role of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education received coverage in the media.

Far from putting Mr Stokes’ views on a STEM intellectual blacklist, I argue that we should accept this as an invitation to debate. If we can move beyond the indignation of the sadly now unfamiliar situation of someone in a position of authority actively challenging orthodoxy, Mr Stokes has a point few could actually argue against: the best education is a diverse education.

History has shown that the most resilient individuals and the most resilient societies are those founded on principles that give no single idea, thought or philosophy absolute primacy. He is on firm ground here.

As the head of an engineering professional body with its roots firmly in the STEM arena, I acknowledge that the self-interest of STEM professions is certainly at play. Our self-interest, though, is far from selfish. The best interest of STEM professions and the best interests of the Australian economy are one and the same. 

We both work to ensure that Australia has the skills to deliver our high-tech infrastructure and transform our economy to meet the needs of a future based on innovation, technology, data and knowledge.

Absent from Mr Stokes’ argument is an understanding of how these modern STEM professions and industries actually work.  Taking my own profession, engineering, as an example it’s long since been the norm that engineering graduates must demonstrate competence in elements of social science or humanities not so long ago considered ‘soft’ subjects and unimportant for the technical mind.

The most employable graduates are now not the most technically brilliant, but those who demonstrate an ability to understand their profession in a human context. 

Mr Stokes’ claim about STEM ‘dehumanising’ education is missing the point. Those of us who are STEM practitioners would be the first to admit that without the human element, STEM simply doesn’t exist. The 19th century biologist Thomas Huxley said any well-rounded professional should seek to learn something about everything and everything about something. 

What my colleagues and I in STEM professions and industries would argue, is that one or more of these somethings must be science or mathematics. 

These are the foundations of modern enlightenment and increasingly the ticket to entry-level jobs.

Where this debate becomes real is in the context of the skills needed to fuel Australia’s economy.  If my STEM colleagues and I drift into evangelism, it’s through recognition of the fact that we’re at grave risk of not actually being able to sustain STEM professions in this country.  We are perilously close to not being able to offer a pipeline of STEM-prepared school children to feed our university courses - let alone industry demands.

With more than 58 per cent of our engineering workforce now overseas-born, you could be excused for saying we have a problem.  Sadly, without real investment in getting our youngsters STEM-savvy, there’s a very real chance that Australia’s STEM workforce will be one that we borrow from overseas.

I think Mr Stokes has missed the point of why so many are beating the STEM education drum, but science tells us that debate is a great place to start.

Peter McIntyre is the CEO of Engineers Australia