The challenge for Queensland

The retention and achievement of students in STEM education is critically important for the futures of young people and the success of Australia's economy.

Over the past decade, Queensland has experienced strong growth in workforce skills in the STEM areas, however at the same time there has been a fall in students studying these subjects at school and university.

The evidence shows there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of students undertaking science in secondary school. For example, approximately 90 per cent of year 12 students studied science in the early nineties, but by 2011 this number fell to under 50 per cent. From 1992 to 2012, participation rates for science, as a proportion of the total Year 12 cohort, fell by 10 per cent for biology, 5 per cent for chemistry and 7 per cent for physics.

The good news for Queensland is that there has been a measurable improvement in student numbers enrolled in maths and science subjects each year for the last three years.

Data from 2012 to 2017 shows STEM enrolments in senior STEM subjects in Queensland schools have begun to stabilise or increase, demonstrating an arrest in the decline in STEM participation:

  • Biology has shown an increase from 28.1% in 2012 as a portion of total Year 12 enrolments to 32.5% in 2017; (4.4% increase)
  • Chemistry enrolments have increased from 19.2% in 2012 to 21.3% in 2017; (2.1%)
  • Physics enrolments have remained consistent with changes from 14.8% in 2012 to 15.3% in 2017; (0.5%)
  • Mathematics B enrolments have increased from 35.4% to 36.6% (1.2% increase); and
  • Mathematics C enrolments have increased from 8.7% to 9.8% (1.1%).

The retention of students is a concern, not only in the secondary school setting, but also in the higher education sector. Enrolment in STEM courses at university is either at plateau or falling. University science enrolment rates in Queensland are well below the national average.

Along with the reduction in numbers of students in these subjects there is a further finding that Queensland is “substantially behind the performance of our East Asian neighbours at all education ages”.

This is most keenly exhibited in primary aged students, and Indigenous students.

Queensland not only scores poorly compared with the rest of the world, but also with the rest of Australia in the key STEM subjects of science and maths. As few as 49.9% of Queensland students achieved at or above the proficient standard in scientific literacy at a Year 6 level.

This has a critical impact on the development of a skilled workforce. Many of the fastest growing occupations require STEM skills and knowledge yet employers report difficulty recruiting people for occupations requiring STEM skills.

In addition, the Queensland Chief Scientist’s 2014 report 'Health of Queensland Science (PDF, 2.9MB) ' found that most Australian primary school teachers do not have a tertiary background in the major traditional sciences, with less than 20% having some sort of tertiary science education in biology, chemistry or physics. This means that over 80% of Australian primary school teachers have no tertiary education in science at all.

STEM teaching in Australia