|Project Title||Starting out in STEM: A study of young men and women in first year science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses|
|Project Team||Terry Lyons, Frances Quinn, Nadya Rizk (UNE), Neil Anderson (JCU), Peter Hubber, (Deakin), John Kenny (UTas), Len Sparrow (Curtin), Jan West (Deakin) & Sue Wilson (ACU)|
- A research study undertaken by a consortium of researchers from six universities, led by the SiMERR National Research Centre at the University of New England;
- Principal investigators Dr Terry Lyons and Dr Frances Quinn of UNE;
- Project supported by the Chief Scientist of Australia Professor Ian Chubb, the Australian Council of Deans of Science and the Australian Council of Engineering Deans;
- The largest project of its kind in Australia, involving 3500 first year science, technology, engineering and mathematics students in 30 universities;
- Contributed Australian data to the international Interest and Recruitment in Science (IRIS) project funded via the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme;
- Investigated influences on students’ decisions to take STEM courses, and their subsequent experiences of these courses;
- Had a particular focus on the decisions and experiences of young women in male-dominated STEM courses such as physics, IT and engineering;
- This is because Australia does not rank highly among OECD countries in the proportion of STEM university qualifications awarded to women. In a 2011 OECD report, Australia ranked 26th of 32 countries in the proportion of university qualifications awarded to women in mathematics and statistics, 20th in engineering, manufacturing and construction and 17th in computing. Australia did however rank 7th of 32 countries in terms of physical science (physics and chemistry) qualifications awarded to women.
- Young people are driven to STEM courses primarily by personal interest. Around 86% of students considered interest to be important or very important in their decisions. They are less motivated by career prospects, salaries or the advice of others;
- Students felt the most important people in their decisions to take STEM courses were good teachers, followed by parents and then peers. Careers advisors were seen as the least important people.
- Students felt that documentaries had been more influential in their decisions to take STEM courses than were fictional science-related movies or television shows;
- Many students were critical of the quality of university teaching in their courses. Fewer than half agreed they received personal feed-back from lecturers and teachers when needed, and only 56% agreed that their lecturers/teachers cared about whether they learned or not. Students attending some of the Group of Eight universities were among those most critical of these two aspects of their experiences. This result contrasted with students’ experiences of STEM subjects at school, where good teachers and regular feedback had been quite important in their decisions to choose university STEM courses.
- Engineering students tended to be the least satisfied with their courses. Compared to other STEM students, they were more inclined than others to disagree that their teachers cared about whether they learned anything and that they received timely feedback. They found it more difficult than other students to see the relevance of what they were learning, were less likely to believe the course suited them, and were less inclined to agree they had become more interested in the subject over the year.
- Females were significantly more inclined than males to regard personal encouragement from teachers as very important in their decisions to take STEM courses;
- Females were also significantly more inclined than males to rate their mothers as important in their decisions to take STEM courses;
- Males and females tended to attribute different levels of importance to a number of influences on decisions to take STEM courses, and to be influenced by different future priorities;
- Females were more likely than males to consider STEM Outreach programs to have been important in their decisions to take Engineering courses;
- There was no indication that females in male-dominated STEM courses felt discriminated against by male students or lecturers. While around 20% of females in these courses argued for a more balanced gender representation, a similar proportion felt there was no need to change the status quo.
- Females were significantly more inclined than males to be motivated in their choice of course by a desire to contribute to sustainable development and protection of the environment.
- Greater government and industry support for effective ‘Girls in STEM’ type outreach activities at the Year 9-10 level;
- A need for alternative means of providing advice about STEM courses and careers for parents and students;
- That developers of the Australian Curriculum, subsequent state/territory syllabuses and associated teaching resources in science, mathematics and IT ensure these documents reflect the pre-eminence of personal interest and practical application among the many influences on students’ decisions to choose university STEM courses.
- Universities should review the quality of teaching and feedback to students in first year STEM courses, particularly in some of the G8 universities;
- Engineering faculties should review and improve the quality in teaching experienced by their first year students.
Click here to download the report on this project.