Over the past year, students from Condobolin High School, Scots All Saints College, Central West Leadership Academy, MacKillop College and Wellington High School have been developing solutions to challenges within their communities such as employment, housing, transport, waste and recycling, and worker shortages.
Some of the schools presented their projects at the recent STEM Community Partnerships Program (STEM CPP) end-of-year event – a careers day and showcase, the first one for the region. This program is part of Generation STEM, an initiative that aims to make science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) accessible, relatable and inclusive to NSW students.
The event showcased a two-way exchange between students and industry. Students presented their projects in the morning, spanning from systems designed to optimise compost usage for food production to sustainable, portable housing solutions aimed at addressing the worker shortage in the Central West region.
The housing solution even featured a robotic vertical garden, specifically developed within a mining context. Students also had a chance to present their ideas directly to Newmont Mining, who not only attended but also showcased their interactive VR Sandvik Automine Simulator technology.
Highlighting STEM careers across the region
In the afternoon, industry professionals led the discussions. Newmont was accompanied by several other local STEM industries, such as Taronga Western Plains Zoo, DCS Spatial Services, Iberdrola Wind Farms, and CSIRO. These industry representatives engaged with students through workshops and displays, sharing information about STEM-based career opportunities in the region.
"You can’t build great telescopes in the middle of cities," explains Dr Jane Kaczmarek, a CSIRO Senior Research Scientist. "Murriyang, the Parkes radio telescope, capitalises on the amazing (radio) skies that we can only enjoy away from urban areas and that’s not going to change," she stresses.
Addressing the students, Jane emphasises the need for diverse skills to maintain the 64-meter telescope, encompassing roles from engineers and technicians to fitters, electricians, groundskeepers, and mechanics.
She points out, "None of us working in space and astronomy are alike, but we all share a STEM passion and/or interest. It equips us with a mental toolkit and a distinctive approach to problem-solving, enabling us to break down challenges into achievable steps."
Increasing student interest and engagement
Adam Quinn is a first time STEM CPP participant and teacher at Condobolin High School. Together with 39 students, he travelled to Orange to attend the event and present their solutions.
"There’s a fair amount of interest across all age groups at the school towards STEM," Adam explains.
He says one of the highlights of STEM CPP is seeing previously disengaged students grow more enthusiastic about science, explaining that another teacher noted recently an increased interest in science among some students since participating in the initiative.
"I'm reaching students that I wouldn't normally because it’s not the typical 'Here is the bookwork. Write this in your book' type of learning. This approach allows me to connect with more kids and build relationships," he says.
Using industry perspectives to nurture student strengths
To create a connection between their in-classroom inquiry projects and industry, Adam reached out to Kingston Resources for support.
Geologists from the local mine visited the class during the third term, sparking enthusiasm among the students.
"I gave the students the question, 'How can we make a mine site more environmentally friendly?' Adam explains.
"I presented Kingston Resources, their situation, and the question. I also shared CSIRO challenge scenarios, allowing them to choose one to address within the mining context and that question."
With a background in project-based learning, Adam knew the importance of identifying each student’s strengths and customising the learning experience.
For example, if a student liked cars or trucks, Adam directed them to transportation-related projects.
This approach not only kept students engaged but also tackled the challenge of thinking too big.
"My strategy is to find doable tasks for the students and play to their strengths," he reiterates.
Adam will stay in the program next year and aims to narrow down the inquiry project to address challenges within the school.
He has initial ideas about waste and a half-finished aquaponics system, emphasising the goal of creating something practical.
"Then they can see it and say, 'I did that,'" Adam concludes.