The students at this school hadn’t promised to be the most receptive crowd. The Smart Skills team had been warned about a range of behavioural and physical health concerns. They were also told to expect strong language, disengagement and the possibility of kids just walking out.
In fact, the opposite happened. After the workshop kicked off with an energetic discussion about the role of drones in 21st century life, and moved to some fun work on tablets using the Bridge Constructor app, more students joined in until the expected attendance had doubled.
Moments like this are no surprise to the Questacon team that tours Smart Skills workshops all over Australia. In the four years since the initiative began, they’ve seen kids energised, inspired and empowered by the hands-on challenges designed to break down outdated misconceptions about STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), and instead show how exciting, creative and challenging these areas can be.
Sarah Simmonds, Questacon’s Smart Skills mentor, has a wealth of similar examples from schools Australia-wide, from regions in Tasmania, SA, NSW and VIC, Northern QLD and the NT, all testifying to the transformative power of the Smart Skills workshops.
“We get great feels from it,” she says. “We’ve been experiencing and hearing these stories from all our teams over the lifetime of our program.”
One of the key messages of Smart Skills, she says, is that STEM is part of just about everything we do. “One of our main focuses is to shift that traditional feeling towards science, engineering and maths, where people might be afraid of it or feel it’s not for them,” she says. “We can really highlight that 21st century skills like critical thinking and problem solving abilities can really move across all fields and transfer to other areas where their passions may lie.”
Australia’s STEM skill gap has been a national priority for some time now. A key factor is that many young Australians are unable to make a clear connection between STEM subjects and their dream jobs. As a result, they can become disengaged from STEM as early as primary school.
Alongside the Smart Skills initiative, Samsung in collaboration with Questacon, ran the This is a STEM Job national innovation competition, designed to show young Australians how STEM skills play a key role in some of the most exciting and creative jobs out there – including future roles that may not yet even exist. The competition challenged young people in the areas of music, surfboard design and fashion.
This is a STEM Job and the Smart Skills initiative are busting old stereotypes of sterile laboratories and stuffy boffins. They’re run by dynamic, passionate experts armed with tech that really brings their message to life.
Sarah Simmonds recalls delivering a workshop in New England and Armidale, in which the kids were challenged to design and build their own roller coaster. The session began with the students experiencing a real roller coaster through Samsung’s virtual reality technology. Energised by that thrill, students threw themselves into the task, she says, and some of the unlikeliest students shone brightest. Two boys, who’d often been boisterous and disruptive in class, proved themselves a pair of gifted innovators.
“They asked for permission to use the second storey of the hall, creating a zipline concept for their construction,” says Simmonds. “We gave them some extra tools from our bag of tricks to help them make their invention more of a reality. They didn’t want to stop … and that enthusiasm was contagious for everyone in the room.”
The boys’ invention was excellent, but the result is secondary to the process, says Simmonds. “If it works, that’s a bonus, but if it doesn’t work they’ve had the opportunity to display their idea and use their innovation as a tool for communication. We want to emphasise how valuable their idea is.”
With many teachers equally inspired by the Smart Skills workshops, Simmonds believes they’re facilitating a significant shift in perceptions around STEM. “I really do think it’s helping. We are blurring those lines and showing these are really transferable skills. It’s wonderful if some kids are inspired to work in traditional STEM fields but we’re delighted if after the workshop a student says: ‘wow, I really love fashion, and I can see how these creative and problem-solving skills apply to my passion.’”
Meanwhile, she hopes the entire Questacon Smart Skills Initiative, which also includes Questacon’s Maker Project workshops, Questacon Invention Convention and Enterprising Australians exhibition, continue to grow.
“We are so excited to be a part of it and to share what we do. We all love our jobs so much and every one of us really cares about that mission to demystify STEM and make it an accessible and exciting adventure.”