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By Anastasia Prikhodko 2 March 2023 3 min read

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, thethreat 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."

[Music plays and a split circle appears and photos of different CSIRO activities flash through in either side of the circle and then the circle morphs into the CSIRO logo]

[Image changes to show Ruth Carr talking to the camera, and then the image changes to show students at work in a classroom, and text appears: Ruth Carr, CSIRO Director of Education and Outreach]

Ruth Carr: The future is about nurturing the next generation of problem solvers and innovators and that’s what Generation STEM is all about.

[Images move through of students and a mentor in conversation around a computer in a library, students working with a robotic vehicle, and students working with a 3D printer]

Programmes like STEM Community Partnerships Programme enables students to see industry and STEM in real life and that’s what makes it real and makes it exciting.

[Images flash through of various views of students at the End of Year Showcase event, students displaying their models, and talking to visitors, and talking together]

Tania Sarafian: The End of Year Showcase is a fantastic opportunity for the students to share what they’ve learnt through the STEM Community Partnerships Programme.

[Image changes to show Tania Sarafian talking to the camera, and text appears: Tania Sarafian, CSIRO Programme Delivery Manager]

It’s an opportunity for celebration.

[Images move through of students displaying their projects, a close view of some of the projects, a team standing behind their project, and a view of projects on the tables]

It’s an opportunity to show what they’ve been working on throughout the year and how they’ve been able to develop solutions as teams and being future focussed.

[Image changes to show Stephanie talking to the camera, and then the image changes to show projects on the tables again, and text appears: Stephanie, All Saints Catholic College]

Stephanie: The End of Year Showcase has been really exciting. You can definitely see how hard everybody’s worked.

[Image changes to show Amira talking to the camera, and then images move through of Amira explaining her project which is displayed on a computer screen, and text appears: Amira, East Hills Girls Technology High School]

Amira: I feel that like really helped me build my skills in like analytical thinking, creative thinking, and like it really helped me improve my relationship with my teammates and my creativity skills.

[Image changes to show Tanjee talking to the camera, and text appears: Tanjee, East Hills Girls Technology High School]

Tanjee: STEM is very important to me because it allows my creativity and imagination to expand.

[Images move through to show a student placing an item into a BB-Bot model on a table, the team standing behind the project, and a close view of the BB-Bot in operation]
It gives me so many more insights into the future.

[Image changes to show Craig Apted talking to the camera, and text appears: Craig Apted, La Salle Catholic College Bankstown, Science Teacher]

Craig Apted: The Showcase has really, really topped off the year.

[Images flash through of students displaying a hybrid bus project model, the hybrid bus on a computer screen, and students looking at projects at the event]

They’ve been so proud and they really get to show all their efforts, what they’ve done, and what they’ve collaborated on.

[Image changes to show David Wright talking to the camera, and text appears: David Wright, Managing Director, Aqua Ventures]

David Wright: STEM is about the people of tomorrow.

[Images move through of a model bus moving around a model airport, views of a female in conversation with a group of students, and then two students at work in a classroom]

So, it’s about those people today who’ve got to be able to get skills to do the things that are really going to matter in the future, to solve problems that they don’t know about today. Today they’re learning and one way of learning is to get exposed to STEM.

[Images move through of a 3D printer in operation, two students working with the printer, and a rear view, facing and then side view of a student walking along a verandah at the school]

Craig Apted: It’s been an amazing year with the STEM Community Partnerships Programme. The students get to look at problematic knowledge, they look at local problems, and develop local solutions.

[Images move through of students working, and then the image changes to show Craig talking to the camera]

It’s opened their eyes really to opportunities. And to see what the opportunities are is what drives students and motivates them in their selection of different subjects and career choices.

[Music plays, and the image changes to show the SIEF and NSW Government logos, and text appears: Generation STEM is managed by CSIRO and made possible through the NSW Government’s $25 million endowment to the Science and Industry Endowment Fund (SIEF)]

[New text appears:]

[Image changes to show the CSIRO logo on a white screen, and text appears: CSIRO, Australia’s National Science Agency]

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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."

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