Which school students need STEM education?

On this page:

In this section you will learn:

  • There are good reasons to provide STEM education to all students in Australian schools
  • There are different challenges for different age groups
  • Some specific groups need additional and special support in STEM education

All students can benefit from improved STEM education

There are good reasons to consider STEM education initiatives for all school students:

  • STEM education prepares students for the changing world of work and careers.
  • STEM skills will be foundational for Australia’s fastest-growing future jobs.
  • STEM skills naturally support essential life skills — e.g. critical thinking, creativity, learning to fail and experiment.
  • STEM enhances general capabilities — e.g. Literacy skills in Science or Numeracy skills in Technology.

Australia isn’t doing enough to successfully support all students through STEM education. So, there is value in all STEM education initiatives, no matter who they target.

There are different challenges for different age groups

Students are exposed to STEM differently at different stages in school:

  • In early learning environments, students have their first experience of STEM education. Positive dispositions to STEM are developed through rich and authentic play opportunities. This exposure supports the child’s self-image as a competent and capable learner and facilitates the child’s confidence towards STEM learning.
  • In primary school, students build upon their previous interactions with STEM education. Positive experiences are critical for later STEM engagement as students may start to form aspirations towards a STEM career that can be harnessed
  • In early secondary (Years 7-10), students begin to form deeper knowledge and understanding of STEM. School-based experiences can influence their engagement with STEM and their future career ideas and aspirations.
  • In senior secondary (Years 11-12), students make decisions on STEM participation that can impact their future education / career pathways.

Student interest and participation in STEM changes throughout the school journey. Different things happen in a student’s life, and in their STEM education, that influence their decisions. This means there are different reasons to target different age groups when thinking about STEM education initiatives.

  Early Years Primary Early secondary
Senior secondary
STEM education

Students’ early experiences in STEM explore posing questions and testing theories in authentic contexts

Early STEM exposure can challenge unconscious gender biases

Some students lose interest by age 6

Gender biases are formed at age ~4

Students begin to feel bored by STEM, and disengagement begins – especially among disadvantaged cohorts

STEM grades start to drop age 15

Students choose whether they want to continue studying STEM

Students develop confidence and dispositions through play

Students explore all aspects of identity through role play

Parents have a major influence on child

Students are highly receptive, interested and engaged. They are eager and willing to learn and experience new things. Some may even start forming career aspirations

Parents have a major influence on student engagement and participation

Critical transition-point for students moving from primary to secondary

Students start to form career aspirations

Parents have a major influence on student engagement and participation

Students are making critical decisions about pathways beyond school (education, careers)

Parents have a major influence on student engagement and participation

The following sections provide more information on targeting different age groups:

STEM education in the early years can also have many benefits. Preschool environments provide an authentic context for children to explore STEM thinking and learning. Early intervention can increase the chances of long-term impacts for students. However, as noted at Section 1.5, this Toolkit focusses on the years of formal schooling, and on school settings, rather than early learning.

Some groups need additional and special support

Important groups in Australian schools face additional challenges in STEM at school and in their future careers. There are gaps in achievement and engagement by student age, gender, location, cultural background and socio-economic status.

Different student groups need different levels of STEM support. The following sections provide information about specific challenges and initiatives in STEM education for:

This list is based on where there is clear evidence, but does not necessarily include every group of students who might need (or benefit from) special support, or who could be the target audience for a STEM education initiative.