Are we exposing students to technology studies early enough? Could a gap in the curriculum be leaving Australian children behind while their international peers race towards a bright technological future? IE Journalist Elise Cuthbertson writes.
Last year’s Review of the Australian Curriculum, led by Kevin Donnelly and Kenneth Wiltshire, proposed technology studies commence from Year 9 as the subject area was viewed as “not appropriate for primary schools”.
The reviewers said “we are not convinced that a separate [technology] subject of the kind that has been designed needs to be mandatory at any level. However, it definitely should be an elective subject from lower secondary school onwards.”
Keep students in step
But critics of the review’s position suggest the proposal would not come soon enough to keep Australian students in step with peers in countries that teach technology in the early years such as New Zealand, Britain and the Netherlands.
The review’s position sits in contrast that of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), which advocates for technology to be embedded into the curriculum from the foundation years.
In 2010, ACARA was tasked with developing a Foundation to Year 10 curriculum, which led to the development of a model covering eight curriculum learning areas. One of the eight areas was technologies.
By 2013 ACARA had completed development of the proposed Foundation to Year 10 curriculum, which included a period of consultation with relevant stakeholders. Only some of the model learning areas, English, Mathematics, Science, Humanities and Social Sciences (in part) and The Arts, are now ‘endorsed’. The other learning areas, including the technology curriculum, remain in limbo as they await ‘final endorsement’.
The Federal Government has indicated some support for an increased focus on technology in the curriculum. In its initial response to the Donnelly and Wiltshire review, the Government said it “recognises the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and strongly supports a greater balance in the Australian Curriculum to ensure sufficient focus on teaching the key concepts in these important areas of student learning”.
Ultimately, agreement from state and territory governments is needed to bring about significant change to the national curriculum and it is unclear how the Federal Government will address the issue of technology in the wake of these conflicting perspectives.
With the future of technology in school curriculum in limbo, some advocates are taking matters into their own hands.
Building a generation of Robogals
Robogals is an international, predominantly student-run organisation that aims to increase the number of young women pursuing careers in technology and engineering. It was founded by former Young Australian of the Year Marita Cheng in 2008.
Robogals Chief Executive Officer Nicole Brown said Robogals stemmed from a presentation Marita gave to Year 6 students about robotics and the positive response it created. “Marita thought ‘well if we can do this at one school – why not all schools’?” Nicole said.
Robogals has expanded rapidly since its foundation and now has 31 chapters across three global regions, including the Asia-Pacific then Europe, Middle East, Africa and North America.
Robogals is run by a volunteer cohort of female and male tertiary students, primarily engineering and technology students, which Nicole said reflects the organisation’s belief in equality.
“We’re not all females in engineering. We are male and female volunteers who all believe in the importance of creating pathways for women in the fields of engineering and technology and we’re working together to make it happen,” Nicole said.
At the heart of Robogals’ work are its visits to schools. During these visits, Robogals volunteers run workshops that introduce girls to engineering and technology skills such as robotics and computer programming.
“The workshops foster a positive culture so girls don’t feel hesitant to join in. Research indicates that girls may be intimated to approach physical or problem-solving tasks while boys are in the room. So the Robogals workshops make girls feel comfortable to undertake these tasks,” Nicole said.
Nicole said the most important outcome of Robogals workshops was increasing awareness among girls about studying and pursuing a career in technology or engineering.
Opening up possibilities
“A lot of the challenges for girls and women stem from the fact that they are not aware of the possibility,” Nicole said.
“During Robogals workshops, we will ask girls questions like ‘what is engineering?’ or ‘what subjects do you need to study to do engineering at university?’ and it’s generally the girls who have family members or friends who work in these fields that will know the answers.”
Nicole said surveys completed before and after the workshops showed just how significantly girls’ understanding increased following a visit from Robogals.
“We use surveys to assess girls’ awareness of engineering and technology studies and generate a rating out of 10. Before the workshop, the average awareness is 2.7 out of 10. After the workshop, that figure goes up to 7.8 out of 10.
“So the workshops really do help girls to feel comfortable in heading down the path of a career in engineering or technology in the future, if that’s something they’d like to do.”
Nicole said the discussion around technology and curriculum was important, particularly given the experience of Robogals for both students and volunteers.
“We’ve found that the best age group to target with the Robogals program is girls who are in Years 4 to 9. Girls of this age are old enough to understand the concepts, but not too old that they’re already beyond the point of making a decision [about pursuing a career in engineering or technology]”.
“I believe embedding technology in the curriculum early would be beneficial. We need to expose all children to technology at a younger age and make them feel more comfortable. It’s not necessarily that these skills are for everybody but that everybody should be introduced to the possibility.
“That way, students will be more informed and empowered to make the right career choice for them in the future.”
For more information about Robogals or how to run a workshop at your school, visit www.robogals.org. To read more about the on-going Review of the Australian Curriculum, visit www.studentsfirst.gov.au/review-australian-curriculum.