Marita Cheng, Tech Schools Ambassador

National Science Week Opinion Piece

‘I saw how robotics could change lives. From then, I was hooked.’  

A building-collapse warning system, a pancreatic cancer detection kit, or a self-inflating shirt to stop young children drowning if they fall into a pool.

These aren't the latest gadgets from Silicon Valley – they’re inventions dreamt up and built by high school students who saw a problem and decided to come up with a solution.

Discovering the marvels of maths and science

I’m an inventor too – an engineer. My company, Aubot, designs telepresence robots called ‘Teleport’ that trundle around on wheels for people who can’t get easily around – such as those in hospital, or those with a disability.

But until the second half of Year 12, a career in engineering just wasn’t on my radar — I was on track to study medicine at university. The ‘Eureka!’ moment came during a four-day engineering camp I attended because I liked maths and science. I saw how robotics could change lives. From then, I was hooked.

I’m stoked to be the ambassador of the Victorian Government’s Tech Schools initiative — and more than a little envious of the students that get to go to them.

Unlike traditional technical schools, the 10 new Tech Schools are shared high-tech hubs that deliver innovative programs to students enrolled in partner secondary schools.

This is important because Australia has plenty of room for improvement when it comes to participation, engagement and achievement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects – particularly girls.

Making, doing, design thinking and being creative

The House of Representatives’ standing committee on employment, education and training’s inquiry into innovation and creativity in the workplace heard some sobering figures, reported in May this year.

Participation in STEM education at secondary school has dropped significantly over the past two decades and fewer students are reaching the highest levels in maths and science

The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science noted the proportion of girls dropping mathematics after Year 10 tripled in 10 years, from 7.5 per cent in 2001 to 21.5 per cent in 2011.

To encourage girls to stick with STEM, the inquiry heard, the language around those areas needs to change. For instance, to frame ‘engineering’ as ‘making, doing, design thinking and being creative’.

The inquiry also heard that one reason STEM participation drops overall in high school might be, in part, because students don’t see those subjects as relevant to everyday life. And this is a problem with long-term consequences. In 2015, the Australian Industry Group reported that the gap between what’s taught in schools and the skills needed by employers is widening.

Bridging the gap between skills and jobs

Tech Schools aim to bridge that gap. Tech Schools design unique, high-tech programs with input from industry areas forecast for greatest growth. They’re also linked to the Victorian curriculum and what the students are learning at school.

This means programs are relevant to students, allowing them to hone skills needed for jobs of the future — from problem-solving and creative thinking to using the latest technology.
The Yarra Ranges Tech School, which opened at the Box Hill Institute’s Lilydale Lakeside campus in April, is giving local students a taste of robotics, virtual reality and 3-D printing. The Monash Tech School, which will officially open in Term 3, offers programs that get students to find ways to help people with mobility issues — a topic particularly close to my heart.

By mid-2018, all Tech Schools will be up and running, boosting STEM and problem-solving skills of students from more than 160 Victorian secondary schools.

If I attended a Tech School when I was in high school, I could have been inventing all through my teenage years. Sometimes I wonder: what could I have achieved if I started coding back in Year 7?

Tech Schools will inspire current secondary school students like my engineering camp did me.

Who knows what fantastic inventions they might hatch – and the lives they’ll change?

More information

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