STELR - 10 years on

10 years ago, Chief Scientist of Australia and former ATSE President Dr Alan Finkel spearheaded STELR – an ATSE initiative bringing relevant applications of STEM to secondary schools.
He reflects on a decade of STELR’s pioneering success.

I had only just been elected a Fellow of ATSE. I agreed to attend the education committee meeting. In front of us was a stack of papers describing the 200 or so known extracurricular science and technology activities for Australian school students.

 Alan Finkel at Kilbreda College in 2010

Alan Finkel at Kilbreda College in 2010

The problem? Performance and participation rates were down; there were insufficient primary and secondary school teachers with a science degree; job security in science careers was perceived by high school students to be marginal; and the science curriculum at schools did not engage the interest of many of our brightest students.

The challenge? A contribution by ATSE, perhaps by recommending or backing one or more of the existing programs.

So with the naivety of a new recruit, I asked: what’s the point? If collectively these 200 activities had not helped so far, we needed to do something different.

The key, I discovered, was relevance. Our kids were growing up in a wealthy, comfortable society. Complacency was knocking at the door. Far from being under pressure from their parents to be a doctor or a lawyer (which was the encouragement I had from my immigrant parents), their parents were encouraging them to follow their passion.

Passion often comes from a calling for the arts, music or sport, but for many young people, it comes from the dream of growing up to solve real-world problems.

Wondering what was in the minds of our school students, I found the answers in the 2006 Australian Childhood Foundation survey of what concerned 14 year-olds. Top of the list was the death of parents, second was being bullied at school and third was climate change.

The Education Committee agreed it was appropriate for ATSE to develop a program, and that it should be at a national scale. We further decided that to truly engage the students, there should be a hands-on component. We had to develop a kit of equipment for every school. But equipment, context and content were not enough.

We knew teachers were central, thus there was a need to provide professional development.

The program had had two goals. First, to capture the interest of engaged students who might consider a science or engineering career. Second, to introduce all students to real-world science and technology, so that even if they did not choose a science or engineering career, at least they had an appreciation for the power of science.

To meet the second goal, it was essential that the decision to participate was at the school level, so that when the school put up its hand to take part, every student in Year 8 or Year 9 was in the program.

But equipment, context and content were not enough. We knew teachers were central, thus there was a need to provide professional development.

In a presentation to ATSE Fellows in 2007, I said:

  • When conventional experiments are taught, students often ask, “So what?” STELR will use extremely relevant technology to teach fundamental principles of science. 
  • A classic billiard ball experiment is just science; a STELR wind turbine experiment is science with a job prospect.
  • Advances in science rely on technology, so why not use technology to help teach science?

I am delighted that there are now approximately 630 Australian STELR schools (nearly a quarter of all secondary schools in Australia) and nearly 40 international STELR schools.

As a footnote, today I am chairing a project for the State, Territory and Commonwealth Education Ministers to look into optimising the ways in which schools partner with industry to teach STEM. I’ve participated in consultations in every state and territory and, among many themes, one that consistently emerges is the need for science teaching to have relevance. And so it was, and so it is, and so it will be.

Adapted from an article written by Alan Finkel and published in ATSE’s magazine, Focus, Number 206, April 2018.