Students around the country are learning real-word science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) from industry experts through our STEM Professionals in Schools program. With around 2500 participants, it is the largest STEM volunteer program in Australia.
The program partners teachers with volunteers from STEM fields. They then work together to apply this specialist knowledge to the curriculum. Encouragingly, thirty percent of the program’s partnerships are in schools based in regional or remote areas of Australia.
Growing STEM knowledge in the wheatbelt
One such partnership takes place in Western Australia’s expansive wheatbelt region in the state’s southwest.
Dr Grishma Vadlamani is a research associate specialising in protein crystallography at The University of Western Australia. She partners with teacher Dr Velu Ramasamy. Velu is also the coordinator of the Primary Extension and Challenge program for gifted students in the wheatbelt region.
Together, they helped Year 5 and 6 gifted and talented students from eight different schools explore the subject of agriculture through a STEM lens. The schools included Northam, West Northam, Yerecoin, Kalannie, and Miling primary schools, as well as York, Beverley and Kellerberrin district high schools.
Grishma was especially keen to work with regional schools.
"I volunteered with a regional partnership to communicate how routine methods in molecular biology can be the starting point to answer important questions in medical science and agriculture.”
Planting the seeds of STEM learning
The students looked at soil health, microbes, protein crystallisation and the inner workings of plant cells. They were trying to understand how to make plants drought proof and resilient to climate change. It is a particularly relevant topic for the wheatbelt where agriculture plays such an important role. The students then delivered an exhibition to parents and school leaders to showcase their work.
“The students were enthusiastic and often insightful during our discussions and activities. I also got the chance to learn more about the inner workings of local farms through the student's dioramas. It was a fun and informative experience, overall," Grishma said.
Velu saw the program as a unique opportunity to encourage STEM learning in the region’s schools.
“Regional and rural areas have challenges in terms of equity and access. Many of the schools may not have access to experts, resources and partnership opportunities due to distance and isolation,” he said.
“Through the program, students and teachers are given the opportunity to delve deep into STEM areas. It has been an excellent activity to develop critical and creative thinking. The program provides professional development for teachers and for students. It can become an inspirational opportunity for them to pursue these fields in the future which is important for our nation,” said Velu.
Velu has since helped to introduce teachers from an additional 15 local schools to the STEM Professionals in Schools program.
Connecting and supporting regional schools
STEM Professionals in Schools’ Regional and Remote Initiative supports STEM professionals and teachers through a series of online events. The webinars help them to connect with other participants, share activity ideas and build ongoing sustainable partnerships. The partnership support model has been so successful that elements have since been rolled out to program participants nationwide.
Schools have adapted to online learning over the past two years. So it has become even easier for those with specialist STEM knowledge to give back to schools no matter their location. Thanks to video calls, volunteers can easily help a class regardless of whether it is five minutes down the road or on the other side of the country.
STEM Professionals in Schools is supported by the Australian Government’s Department of Education, Skills and Employment and is made possible thanks to its amazing volunteers. It is open to applications from teachers and STEM professionals from industry, research and academia.