The STEM agenda

In this monograph, Emeritus Professor Di Siemon, invites school leaders and teachers to consider the implications of the STEM agenda for the teaching and learning of mathematics at their school in terms of two related issues; access and outcomes.

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The big picture

“At the core of almost every agenda is a focus on STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” (Office of the Chief Scientist [OCS], 2014, p. 5)

Mathematics is central to STEM - without mathematics there is no STEM

However, Australian students’ performance on international assessments of mathematical literacy has declined significantly since 2003 (e.g. Thompson, De Bortoli, Underwood, & Schmid, 2019) and participation rates in advanced mathematics courses in Year 12 have plummeted (e.g. Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, 2017; 2020).

This situation is inequitable and untenable given the centrality of mathematics to STEM and the critical importance of STEM skills for ‘the economic and social well-being of the nation’ (Australian Industry Group [AiG], 2013, p. 1). In terms of access, it is inequitable as it disproportionately impacts females, Indigenous students, and those living in lower socio-economic circumstances or rural regions (Masters, 2016; Office of the Chief Scientist [OCS], 2016, 2017).

It is untenable as an estimated 75% of the fastest growing employment opportunities require ‘significant science or maths training’ (Becker & Park, 2011, p. 23), and the problems we face as individuals and as a society require ever increasing levels of scientific, technological, and mathematical literacy. In terms of outcomes, this is not just an issue for secondary schools as all of the understandings and attitudes needed to succeed in school mathematics, and thereby to participate in STEM studies more broadly, have their origins in the early and middle years of schooling.

This monograph invites school leaders and teachers to consider the implications of the STEM Agenda for the teaching and learning of mathematics at their school in terms of two related issues:

  • Access: Why are students opting out of STEM related studies? What can school mathematics do to increase student options with respect to STEM?
  • Outcomes: Are we focussing too much on the reproduction of mathematical procedures and techniques at the expense of the sort of skills that industry and a STEM literate society demands? How can school mathematics support the development of STEM skills?

Key terms and definitions

STEM education and training covers the specific knowledge and skills found in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. It also covers the interrelationship between these areas, allowing learning to be delivered in an integrated way, helping a deeper engagement in the four disciplines.

For Foundation to Level 10 (F-10) school students, STEM knowledge and skills are embedded within the Victorian Curriculum, in Mathematics, Science, Design and Technologies, and Digital Technologies. STEM education also develops capabilities such as critical and creative thinking, collaboration and ethical decision making.


Mathematics aims to understand the world by performing symbolic reasoning and computation on abstract structures. It unearths relationships among these structures and captures certain features of the world through the processes of modelling, formal reasoning and computation (OCS, 2014, p. 24).


Refers collectively and individually to the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics whose distinct and complementary approaches to knowledge and practice benefit society as a whole (OCS, 2013).

The acronym is shifting from a noun that represents four crucial content areas to an adjective that is used to describe just about anything and everything that anyone is doing related to science or mathematics (Shaughnessy, 2012, p. 1).

STEM education

Not having a single agreed definition is an issue. For instance, STEM education could refer to teaching and learning in individual STEM subjects, across any two or more of the STEM subject areas, and/or involving one or more STEM subjects and a non-STEM subject such as the Arts.

STEM integration

Definitions vary according to the extent of integration. In general, STEM integration refers to units of work, subjects or electives that require students to use knowledge and skills from multiple disciplines in the course of solving a particular problem or undertaking an inquiry into some ‘real-world’ phenomena.

STEM literacy

Again there is no agreed definition, but one view is that STEM literacy encompasses the sorts of knowledge and skills needed to participate effectively and responsibly as citizens in a technology-oriented world (e.g. interpret measures, interrogate statistical evidence, make sense of graphical representations).

STEM skills

Variously cited these include the general skills of problem-solving, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. STEM skills may also include active learning, analysis, design thinking, digital literacy, innovation, inquiry processes, logical reasoning, open-mindedness, objectivity, and self-direction (e.g. Prinsley & Baranyai, 2015; Rosicka, 2016).

Evidence base for the STEM agenda

Mathematics is central to STEM careers and STEM literacy

Success in school mathematics is a strong predictor of STEM engagement (Lowrie, 2017; Wai, Lubinski & Benbow, 2009). Very little of any substance can be achieved in the fields of science, technology, and engineering without mathematics (Siemon, Banks, & Prassad, 2018) and very little of our everyday lives is unaffected by mathematics in some form (Australian Academy of Science, 2016; Finkel, 2017).

Mathematics is widely regarded as an enabling discipline that ‘has been, and will continue to be, at the heart of our search for ways to solve, manage, mitigate or adapt to some of the great challenges that confront us as a nation and as part of humankind’ (Chubb, 2014). The following quotes are included to emphasise this point but also to question – is school mathematics living up to the promise? Does it equip young people with the knowledge and confidence they need to work collaboratively to solve unfamiliar problems and communicate and explain their solutions?

Mathematics has always been the language of science, and statistics is at the heart of good evidence and experimentation. (Australian Academy of Science, 2016, p. 2)
Fundamental to social well-being and economic prosperity, the mathematical sciences are crucial to enhancing Australia’s innovative and creative culture, global competitiveness, and the safety and health of its people. (Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, 2020, p. 5)
Mathematical literacy is foundational to STEM education, where skills in dealing with uncertainty and data are central to making evidence-based decisions involving ethical, economic, and environmental dimensions. (English, 2016, p. 4)

Reality check

One only has to read the quotes above to be convinced that mathematics is central to STEM. However, there is a perception among employer groups that Australian schools are not equipping young people with the skills they need for the STEM jobs of the future (Australian Industry Group [AiG], 2013, 2015; Prinsley & Baranyai, 2015). The skills most commonly identified by employer groups included active learning (i.e. ability to learn on the job), complex and creative problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, communication, design thinking, and mathematical modelling. These can be delivered by mathematics teaching and applied to STEM (The Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers & AiG, 2014; Deloitte Access Economics, 2014; Marginson, Tytler, Freeman, & Roberts, 2013).

The key role of school mathematics: several respondents to the Deloitte Access Economics (2014) survey ‘identified issues with the way Mathematics was taught in school’ as one of the reasons for the mismatch of skills and pointed to ‘the need for the teaching methods to show how Maths relates to the real world, including the role of technology’ (p .67).

Jobs for the future

Numerous industry and government sponsored reports point to the threat posed to Australia’s economy by lack of access to employees with the appropriate knowledge, skills and experience in STEM fields (Business Council of Australia, 2015; OCS, 2012, 2013, 2016; Pricewaterhouse Coopers [PwC], 2015). This is reflected in the fact that 45% of Australian employers expect their workforce requirements for STEM-qualified employees to increase in the next five to ten years (PwC, 2015). Importantly, this is not limited to those with formal STEM qualifications, STEM skills are required across a wide range of occupations as shown in Figure 1 below from AiG’s 2018 survey of 298 employers. In addition to the dramatic increase in some sectors, it is worth noting that most of the skills identified are ones that link directly with the goals of learning school mathematics (refer to the Learning Mathematics page of the Victorian Curriculum: Mathematics .

graphical representation of the results of AiG's 2018 survey of employers , full image description in Figure 1: Long description
Figure 1: Proportion of respondents expecting difficulty recruiting employees with STEM skills in 2018 compared to 2014. Source: Workforce Development Needs: Survey Report 2018 (AiG, 2018)
Figure 1: Long description

Proportion of respondents expecting difficulty recruiting employees with STEM skills in 2018 compared to 2014


2014 14%

2018 38%


2014 17%

2018 53%

Technicians/ trade workers

2014 38%

2018 58%

Clerical/ administration

2014 4%

2018 22%

Community/ service workers

2014 8%

2018 34%

Sales workers

2014 34%

2018 41%

Machinery operators/ drivers

2014 7%

2018 35%


2014 11%

2018 31%

Disturbingly, 99% of employers are affected in some way by low levels of literacy and numeracy in their workforce’ (AiG, 2018, p. 3). Given this and the suggestion that an estimated 75% of the fastest growing employment opportunities require ‘significant science or maths training’ (Becker & Park, 2011, p. 23), it is not surprising that this situation has prompted widespread calls for a focus on STEM education (AiG, 2013, 2015; OCS, 2014, 2016). A call that is so widespread and popular that Sanders (2009) has referred to it as STEMmania.

STEM participation rates are falling and access is inequitable

Despite attempts by governments and other stakeholders over the last decade to increase student participation rates in the key areas of advanced mathematics, physics and chemistry, these have declined significantly (e.g. Cooper & Berry, 2017; OCS, 2017) along with Australian students’ performance on international assessments of mathematics and science such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme of International Assessment (PISA) (Masters, 2016; OCS, 2017; Thomson et al, 2019).

This situation is even more concerning when it is considered by student type where, for example, the proportion of females studying Year 12 advanced mathematics or physics has declined sharply to around 6% nationally. Also, Indigenous students and those living in remote or rural regions and lower socio-economic circumstances are significantly outperformed by their non-Indigenous, metropolitan, higher socioeconomic peers on the PISA assessments of mathematical and scientific literacy. Mathematics is an important enabling subject. Without mathematics, access to other STEM domains is compromised.

STEM education – a contested notion

While there is no agreed understanding of what is meant by ‘STEM Education’ (e.g. English, 2016; Rosicka, 2016, Timms, Moyle, Weldon, & Mitchell, 2018), there is no doubt that business leaders and Australian governments of all persuasions are of the view that a ‘renewed national focus on STEM in school education is critical to ensuring that all young Australians are equipped with the necessary STEM skills and knowledge that they will need to succeed’ (Education Council, 2015, p. 4).

But what does this mean in practice?

Evidence for the efficacy of integrated approaches is lacking. Many claims are made about the advantages of integrating STEM subjects, such as increased motivation, deeper understanding, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and creativity (e.g. Rosicka, 2016). Process-oriented skills associated with inquiry or problem-based learning, such as analysing, explaining, generalising, evaluating, applying and refining are also claimed as advantages of integrated STEM approaches (Timms et al, 2018).

While these are highly desirable learning goals and there is evidence to suggest that integrated approaches provide ‘opportunities for more relevant, less fragmented, and more stimulating experiences for learners’ (Furner & Kumar, 2007, p.186), there is little evidence that integrated approaches lead to a deep understanding of important mathematical ideas and the connections between them (Becker & Park, 2011; English, 2016, 2019; Larson, 2017). This is not to say that integrated STEM approaches should not be considered just that there are some important considerations to keep in mind from the perspective of mathematics teaching and learning, not least of which is ensuring that the mathematics involved is important mathematics otherwise ‘the M in STEM will remain silent’ (Shaughnessy, 2013, p. 324).

If in the STEM program the mathematics isn’t on grade level, or if the mathematics isn’t addressed conceptually but rather as a procedural tool to solve various disjointed applications, or if the mathematics is not developed within a coherent mathematical learning progression, then the ‘STEM program’ fails the fundamental design principle. … to develop the content and practices that characterize effective mathematics programs while maintaining the integrity of the mathematics. (Larson, 2017, p. 2)

Another important consideration to keep in mind is teacher knowledge and confidence in relation to STEM. According to the ABS (2014) only 19 per cent of Australian secondary school teachers employed in 2010-11 had university level STEM qualifications and, at the primary school level, there are known issues with ‘the confidence and competence of teachers to support deep intellectual engagement during the learning of science and mathematics’ (Tytler, Osborne, Williams, et al 2008, p. 115).

Venville, Rennie, and Wallace (2009) point to other barriers to integrated STEM programs such as curriculum expectations, assessment and reporting processes, and school structure (e.g. discipline-based departments). Other challenges faced by schools in implementing an integrated STEM program include teacher workload, the extent of school leadership support, access to staff professional development, and parental expectations (Little, 2019).