2. Literature review

A report commissioned by the Australian Council of Educational Research in 2018 titled Challenges in STEM learning in Australian schools: Literature and policy review found that The Australian curriculum is packaged in discrete disciplines and is not future facing.  It concluded that “the goal is to see students working in an integrative way” (Timms, Moyle, Weldon, & Mitchell, 2018, p. 2).  Accordingly, this paper reports on the early stages of a design-based research project which focuses on 28 specific learning outcomes from the existing Australian primary school curriculum.  By integrating the curriculum around a specific learning outcome in each of the four terms throughout the seven primary school years, students can build a deep understanding of design-based thinking in a logical and systematic way to enhance their engagement in STEM.  The hypothesis presented is that students and teachers will expand their knowledge and skills in STEM by having a daily STEM focus built into each day.  The proposed solution is to implement a logical scope and sequence to achieve sustained immersion in design-based thinking.

Primary schools have an inherent flexibility due to the localised nature of each classroom, but the timetable is generally still structured around clearly delineated blocks of learning such as literacy groups (2 hours), numeracy (1 hour), science once or twice a week and various specialist subjects.  As the existing focus on literacy and numeracy is widely considered to be indispensable, any attempt to increase participation in STEM needs to enhance literacy and numeracy too. 

There has been an international movement to increase student engagement and expertise in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics since administrators at the National Science Foundation (NSF) introduced the STEM acronym in 2001 (Hallinen, n.d.).  Most attempts to boost the profile of STEM seek to integrate STEM into the curriculum.  The acronym STEM is not in the Australian curriculum as STEM content is spread throughout the component areas.  The Technologies learning area covers Design and Technologies (i.e. engineering) and Digital Technologies (i.e. Information and Communication Technologies or ICT).  “Engineering often provides a context for STEM learning” (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA], 2016, p. 6).

The STEM Connections Project (ACARA, 2016) sought to integrate STEM learning in an Australian context.  The origins of the project preceded the publication of the National STEM School Education Strategy 2016–2026 (Education Council, 2015) but “it did address all the areas for action identified in the strategy, either directly or indirectly” (ACARA, 2016, p. 5).  Perhaps the most significant findings from the STEM Connections Project related to helping to understand the challenges faced by both teachers and students.  Students were reported to have often felt like they were lost in the new freedom afforded to them by project-based learning.  For staff, the most significant challenge related to the open-ended nature of the various projects and “the need to surrender their role as leader of learning and subject expert to allow greater autonomy for students” (ACARA, 2016, p. 19).  These issues are significant and not easily solved as they represent a fundamental shift away from how teaching and learning often occurs in schools. 

Ironically, the biggest obstacle of all was [and continues to be] the mundane but critical issue of timetabling and how to make room for innovative STEM projects “as timetabling structures do not necessarily have the flexibility to accommodate such projects” (ACARA, 2016, p. 20).  The implementation plan for the current study addresses this concern directly by integrating other content areas into each project for one hour each day.  Careful cross-referencing has been done for all the learning areas for which a generalist primary school teacher is responsible to justify this use of time.  It also presents a logistical framework to change how STEM education is implemented in primary schools by working within existing school structures and curriculum constraints. 

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