Globally, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects compete for university enrollment with an ever-increasing array of options, to their detriment. The Australian Mathematical Science Institute revealed that basic mathematics was growing in popularity among secondary school students at the expense of intermediate or advanced studies. This has led to fewer universities offering higher math courses and, as a result, a reduction in math graduates. Educators are therefore continuously looking for innovative ways to attract students to university STEM courses.

First, an examination of the causes of low interest in college STEM programs revealed the following: An October 2011 report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) reported that American science graduates viewed traditional science careers as “too socially isolating.” Furthermore, in a rapidly changing job market, humanities or business education was often seen as more flexible. Secondary school students had the perception that IT and IT careers were outsourced and not a local career path. They had the belief that the only IT careers available were “behind the scenes” jobs, such as data entry. The challenge, says Professor Ian Chubb, head of Australia’s Office of the Chief Scientist, in his Health of Australian Science report (May 2012), is to make STEM subjects more attractive to students. As he points out, math and science are taught in secondary school, but engineering and technology are not. Therefore secondary school students are not getting a “taste” for STEM subjects in a practical and applied context.

To address this situation, on an experimental basis, secondary schools in Australia are undertaking a pilot program in computer science and technology. In the state of Victoria in South Australia, secondary schools will test the country’s top computer science and technology subjects in Year 12, the final year of secondary school. The premise is that the pilot program provides students with a taste for the subject, applied to real situations, in order to verify if it produces an increase in interest and enrollments in related subjects at university level. The pilot is seen as a form of early intervention.

Twelve secondary schools will take part in the pilot programme. Therefore, up to 120 secondary school students will undertake the computer science program developed by computer science and engineering academics at Melbourne University and Monash University in collaboration with the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority of the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Melbourne and Monash Universities are conducting workshops for teachers and educators on the pilot program as well as promoting the pilot to parents.

The pilot program is an addition to the senior curriculum in Victoria’s twelve state government schools. The subject is a modified version of the first-year computer science curriculum of the two collaborating universities, taught in two modalities: classroom teaching in the twelve targeted secondary schools and through online subjects.

The computer science pilot is not teaching students how to use technology, because they already know it. The subject aims to extend their thinking to a level of academic rigor equivalent to upper secondary and pre-university school standards. Thus, students will be able to create software and focus on specialist skills, such as complex analysis, sought after by high-tech employers, thereby exploring a multidisciplinary approach to computer science and engineering. An introduction to the skills required at university level is provided to build students’ confidence in applied techniques.

University of Melbourne graduates in Computer Science and Information Communication Technologies (ICT) courses have a 90% employment rate within six months of graduation. The high employment rate is also expected to increase the program’s rate of secondary schools transitioning to computer science and STEM courses at university.

The United States and the United Kingdom have had computer science programs in secondary school curricula for twenty years and the subject is part of the International Baccalaureate. However, Australia has lagged behind in introducing computer science and engineering subjects into secondary school. If the pilot project is successful, the subject will be included in the secondary curriculum of national schools.

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