STEM setting preschoolers up for workforce success in 2030

Professor Tom Lowrie of the University of Canberra's STEM Education Research Centre plays with children from the ...
Professor Tom Lowrie of the University of Canberra's STEM Education Research Centre plays with children from the Wiradjuri Pre-school.  Photo: Karleen Minney

When four-year-old Aoife grows up she wants to be a ballerina. Her friend Aida wants to be an ambulance driver so she can help people.

In 2030, when these preschoolers are entering the workforce, the labour market will be very different. Jobs may still have titles we recognise but the skills needed will be complex and varied, for tasks we can only dream about.

In the report The Future of Work: Setting kids up for success, the Regional Australia Institute predicts that high-demand jobs will need a mix of hard specialist knowledge skills, or STEM skills; and soft people skills, such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

"To ensure the success of today's preschoolers in the 2030 job market, we need to invest in our kids now," the report reads.

"The future of work is not a question of how do we develop skills to race against technology, but instead what mix of skills provides the greatest opportunity to race ahead with technology."

This is the question that a ground-breaking research team at the University of Canberra is hoping to answer, after receiving $6 million in funding to introduce pre-schoolers to STEM thinking.

Researchers from the University's STEM Education Research Centre will develop an interactive, play-based online program for young children to explore a range of STEM concepts.

"The project is fundamentally about engaging young children from an early age into thinking about STEM ideas and STEM practices," says Centenary Professor Tom Lowrie, who will lead the Early Learning STEM Australia project.

"These ideas are things that will set them up for the next 20 or 30 years."


Professor Lowrie says children are naturally inquisitive, experimental and keen to learn by trial and error.

"People in STEM professions think this way as well," he says. "If you look at companies like Google or Amazon, they're doing exactly the same things, it's like they're back in preschool."

Where education fails to some degree, Professor Lowrie says, is that we then put children into formal schooling which is bounded by content and by specific skills, concepts which may well be outdated in a few years, let alone in 30 years.

"By acknowledging that STEM practices are valuable, we might be able to change the education system, so it's not a system embedded in text books and practiced examples and curriculum," Professor Lowrie says.

"We'll start to see that things like spatial reasoning and problem solving, understanding patterns and arrangements, understanding cause and effect, are really big ideas we need as part of life, in any profession."

The ELSA program will include the development of six apps, with four of them focusing on the delivery of playful learning experiences for preschool-aged children.

There will also be an app for early childhood educators to assist with integrating ELSA into preschool programs and one for families to connect to learning opportunities at home.

The apps will act as a "trampoline", Professor Lowrie says, allowing children to springboard from play, connecting with the app, back into play, in both the classroom and outside.

Professor Lowrie is quick to point out, however, that STEM principles were around for a long time before technology.

For parents who are already worried about the screen-time their children are exposed to, Professor Lowrie said there were ways to incorporate STEM principles into everyday situations.

"For example, if you're cooking together, there's a whole lot of STEM understandings that can occur. Simple things like classifying and sorting, all the way through to being able to estimate and measure when your jug, for example, doesn't have the same measures as the recipe. Or explicit things like patterns, working out how many Smarties you might need to put around a cake if you're making a specific design.

"You don't need to have the technology, it's about having a discourse, about parents talking to children about these ideas and reinforcing what's going on."

The program, which will be funded through the government's National Innovation and Science Agenda over three years, will be delivered in preschool programs including long daycare centres, stand-alone preschools and preschools attached to a school.

The ELSA program will recruit 100 preschool services across Australia in 2017 to take part in the 2018 pilot program.

University of Canberra Professor Robert Fitzgerald and Assistant Professor Tracy Logan will join Professor Lowrie in the project. The team will work in collaboration with national science and technology centre Questacon, one of Australia's most experienced developers of early-learning apps, Caroline Kinny-Lewis, and leading app design expert Jake MacMullin of Stripy Sock, among others.