Opinion: The value and opportunity of connecting education and STEM professionals

by Claudette Bateup29 Apr 2016

There is a spotlight on science, engineering, education and maths (STEM) education in Australia.
Dr Jim Peacock, Australia’s Chief Scientist from 2006-2008 as well as a practising scientist, has a long history of interest with the disconnect he observed between the excitement of himself, his colleagues and scientists in general as they engage in their work and the falling rates of participation of students and increasing disengagement reported at the time.
According to Dr Peacock, leveraging the power of storytelling and advocating potential partnerships between schools and the wider community was a way to capture and rekindle the imagination of students in science.
To that end, this provides opportunities for students to experience the spark of excitement that stems from discovery and regarding teacher confidence and professional development as important as students’ learning materials have formed the cornerstone of Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools (SMiS).
Building collaborative partnerships for STEM education – our report card
Connecting education professionals and STEM professionals and supporting them to establish ongoing relationships, partnership programs like CSIRO’s Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools recognises and acknowledges the expertise each person brings to the conversation.
A new report by Deakin University shows the most important reasons for teachers participating in a partnership program is the desire to increase student engagement (very important for 86% science teachers and 73% of mathematics teachers) and to provide students with access to a science, mathematics or ICT professional (very important for 79% of science teachers and 62% of mathematics teachers).
For STEM professional volunteers, the most important reasons for participating are to inspire and engage students (very important for 84% science professionals and 80% of mathematics professionals) and to share their passion (very important for 68% of science professionals and 61% mathematics professionals).
Programs like these are not about a STEM professional coming to be or replace a teacher, nor a one way street of a STEM professional communicating what they know, it’s about two professionals engaging in a dialogue to identify and enact opportunities to enrich learning experiences as clearly demonstrated in the complementarity of reasons for participating. 
The report also highlights key strengths of a partnership were flexibility and negotiation, meaning the learning experiences have heightened relevance and meaning. This is encouraging as the intent of the model of ongoing partnerships is based on educational theory including the need for learning to be authentic, relevant and meaningful.
The flexible nature of SMiS partnerships in particular means that activities undertaken are relevant to the school context and the long term relationship between STEM professional and teacher enables time for discussion and planning.
By connecting educational expertise including knowledge of the curriculum, the school context and the class; with STEM expertise including the real-life journey of someone who has interest and experience of working and thinking scientifically/mathematically, is a far different model of doing things ‘to’ or fixing people, rather it’s based on creating space for people to do things together. 
Lessons learned 
What we’ve learned about establishing and supporting professionals from quite different communities - education and STEM – is the importance of making explicit the potential of the partnership space and how to negotiate it successfully to meet collective objectives of creating engaging, meaningful STEM education for our students.
At the heart of this is the willingness of educators and STEM professionals to be willing to share their story to be part of the story. 
Claudette Bateup is the national director of CSIRO’s Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools, Australia’s largest program connecting teachers with STEM professionals. An experienced educator, Claudette’s career has focussed on facilitating quality teaching and learning experiences with an emphasis on productive partnerships and effective collaboration.