Heat stress, flooding, environment management, transport and infrastructure are no small challenges. But high school students studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are addressing them in their communities through our STEM Community Partnerships Program (STEM CPP).
The program is part of our Generation STEM initiative, which aims to attract NSW students into STEM education and careers.
For Glenmore Park High School students, the threat of floods in their community sparked the basis of their inquiry-based projects. As part of their participation in the STEM CPP, they created models to demonstrate their ideas for flood mitigation. Meanwhile, two Chifley College – Dunheved Campus students based their projects on high summer temperatures. They devised a way to absorb thermal energy on sports courts through misting systems and native plants.
In late 2022, 51 high schools presented the solutions of their inquiry-based projects at the STEM CPP end-of-year showcases across Western Sydney and the Central Coast. The events were the first time since 2019 that students, teachers, parents, councils and industry partners could get together face-to-face and celebrate everyone’s hard work.
Maria Doan is a Science Teacher from All Saints Catholic College in Liverpool. She says seeing the students' enthusiasm and responsiveness to the inquiry projects has been one of the highlights of the program.
“Students have been very engaged in STEM and their projects," said Maria.
"They’ve been working together, learning to collaborate and understand how science, technology, engineering and maths work together to solve problems in the real world.”
So, what is it that makes inquiry-based projects so successful?
Engaging students through real world STEM
Inquiry-based learning is described by the Australian Department of Education as “an education approach that focuses on investigation and problem-solving”. It reverses the order of traditional learning.
Instead of presenting the answer, teachers start with a range of scenarios, questions and problems for students to uncover. This way of learning is becoming a popular and effective way to engage students in STEM. Students are motivated by real issues that impact them. Examining decisions and coming up with collaboratively thought-out solutions can help to improve their confidence and interest in STEM.
Another key benefit is the industry partnerships it creates with schools. Inquiry-based learning ensures students can see the connection between their projects and real-world STEM, while helping them understand the relevance of the curriculum.
The 2021 STEM CPP Impact and Evaluation Report showed that when students were asked to rate the impact of STEM CPP activities on their interest in STEM, the inquiry project came out on top. Additionally, nearly 60 percent of teachers surveyed confirmed the projects had the most impact on students’ engagement.
For some students, STEM CPP has offered an opportunity to work on projects close to their hearts and gives them the space to try, test and learn. For others, it was all about putting ideas into a tangible solution that could improve their future.
Craig Apted, a science teacher from LaSalle Catholic College Bankstown, says STEM CPP has enabled students to develop open-ended solutions.
“This is not that common in school learning because assessments tend to be somewhat rigid in how they are marked. This leads to less creativity on the student’s part," said Craig.
“Students significantly developed their interpersonal skills... I have not seen growth like this from any other form of learning."
Koalatown: Inquiry-based learning in action
Michaela Beattie is a STEM CPP mentor and the Environmental Education Officer at Campbelltown City Council, one of the program’s inaugural collaborators. Her role involves working on the Koalatown initiative, which raises awareness and empowers the community to actively support the conservation of koalas.
Keeping koalas safe from cars and dogs is one of the Council’s ongoing challenges. This prompted students from the Campbelltown area to come up with the idea of placing signs encouraging dog walkers to use leashes in bushland reserves as part of their inquiry projects. The project is currently being trialled by Council at 10 locations in Campbelltown.
“That’s one way inquiry-based learning encourages outside-of-the-box thinking. It’s also exciting when they realise STEM includes nature, amazing plants and animals,” said Michaela.
“Some students thrive better outside observing, watching, learning, asking questions and recording data. Many don’t realise that that’s science in practice."