Top tips: Inspiring careers in STEM

Astrophysicist and ABC Radio presenter Dr Alan Duffy shares his tips and resources for inspiring students to take up STEM careers

Sometimes it can seem like a long and complex journey from being a student to an astrophysicist. And for some teachers it can be difficult to foster their students' interest in the sciences outside of school.

Astrophysicist and associate professor at Swinburne University Alan Duffy is a leading voice of science in Australia, regularly appearing on ABC radio to explain the latest news in science. He shares his memories of how he was inspired to take up the sciences, and how teachers can foster the same interest in STEM among their students.

Inspiring students to take up science, technology, engineering or mathematics

'I always had a passion for science, or rather I was always curious – and it wasn't until I read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time that I realised you could follow that curiosity as a career. I since would learn my field was astrophysics and more specifically cosmology.

'These chance encouragements or discussions with your students, allowing them to see that they aren't alone in having an interest in science, are incredibly powerful.

Encourage students to find likeminded peers, mentors and groups

'Try to encourage those students in finding likeminded peers or mentors.

'To start off you can get your students started in science that's happening right now, head over to Zooniverse – one of the world's largest platforms for people-powered research – and see what real research projects they can get involved in in the classroom or in their spare time.

Community partners can support lesson ideas and out of school activities

'You can also find activities like hackathons, where students can work on projects together over weekends. Groups like Telescopes in Schools or amateur astronomy groups can also work with you to show your students the amazing world out there.

Get support and ideas from professional associations

'You aren't alone in trying to spark that interest, or support and nurture a growing curiosity. Just head to your local science teachers association like Victoria's amazing Science Teachers' Association to learn about the programmes you and you school can join.

Contextualising your studies into real life

'The link between learning and real life applications is incredibly helpful to students wanting to know the relevancy of the subject.

'To know that a simple physics principle can explain how buildings stand tall, planes can fly and boats can float makes the physics equations more compelling.

'However it's not always that easy to make a direct link, and we can do the students or the topic a disservice to force a link. Sometimes it is more important to describe how learning is a fundamental tool, underpinning other fields that might have more direct applications.

'Not everything has a direct and immediate use in real life, but explaining how it fits into a broader discipline is always possible, and will always engage students who want to know why they should study a topic.

Making a career in science an approachable goal

Make learning relevant for all abilities

'Often there are barriers for many students reaching your science class, so you have to be prepared to go to the groups who may be underperforming and engage with them.

'Find out what issues are relevant to your students, and frame the lesson plans or content in terms of that.

Show them the pathway to the future

'In terms of a career in science everyone finds their way differently but the traditional route is to take science and maths at school, a degree at university and then a PhD in your field of interest.

'It can be intimidating to know where to start, so ask you school's career practitioner or science teacher if they know of work experience at a nearby university.

'Check out the free Ulti​mate Careers guides to find your place in STEM or get some ideas for possible future jobs or discussions in your classroom, see: Ultimate Careers​​ – Australia's Science Channel

Encourage them to stay open to opportunities

'My only other bit of advice for teachers and students is be open to opportunities, seize them, and encourage that initiative in your students.

'A chance interview during my second year of uni saw me find my way into studying physics in Amsterdam in Dutch the next year. It's one of the hardest but best things I ever did in my science career. While it wasn't on any career plan I made before then, but has strongly influenced my plans ever since.

Get involved tonight: Stargazing Live on ABC

On Wednesday 23 May, the second night of three in the Stargazing Live series is a celebration of the night sky presented by Professor Brian Cox and Julia Zemiro, broadcasting from  Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, alongside a team of celebrated scientists and space enthusiasts.

This broadcast is a great resource for you and your students to explore the sciences real-world applications. For more information about tonight's broadcast, see: Stargazing Live

Resources for teachers to get their class involved

The ABC has also developed a number of resources, lesson plans and top tips for teachers to get involved in stargazing and to encourage their students to embrace their interest in STEM

For Alan's top tips for stargazing, see: Stargazing Live – Beginners' guide

For lesson plans and classroom activities, see: Stargazing Live – Study guide