Student welds a part to a mechanism
10 September 2018

Why I value STEM education

​Tech companies have copped a decent amount of bad press lately. From job disruption to data breaches, influence over elections, tax minimisation all the way through to concerns about robotic killing machines for the military, certain STEM pursuits are not altogether welcomed with open arms. So what is the value in pursuing careers in STEM? How do they sit with the values of our school and our Christian ethos? Like any field of human endeavour, STEM is filled with those who wish to exploit and those who wish to help with the majority of people somewhere in between.

With almost all economists predicting a seismic shift in the future jobs market, with potential mass unemployment as automation and, more particularly, artificial intelligence render long-standing careers obsolete, preparing students for that future is a critical concern for educators.

The modern industrial model of our education system was developed with that very reason in mind, in essence, to develop in students the capacity to be productive members of society.

Indeed, it is undeniably important that we develop and deliver a quality STEM program here at St Catherine’s, but it is not the only reason. And deep down, it is not my main motivating goal.

What we often take for granted however is the potential for careers in STEM to be truly life-changing for people, leaving even just a small part of the world in a better place. I was struck by this when watching an ABC Australian Story on Dr Munjed Al Muderis, an Iraqi refugee who has now become one of Australia's leading orthopedic surgeons. I encourage you to read his story here.

Dr Muderis and his team in Australia have developed a revolutionary prosthetic leg that utilises a technique called osseointegration. After fleeing his home country he returns regularly to Iraq with a volunteer team to help with a large number of amputees, a legacy of the decades of conflict in that country. The procedure inserts a titanium rod into the femur which protrudes from the skin providing a connection point for a robotic prosthetic leg. It allows these victims of war to walk again.

With modern robotics, and the ability to make truly bionic limbs, it is impossible not to be excited about where these technologies can lead. And it is already taking place - at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory a Florida man, after losing his arm to cancer, is currently trialling the first mind-controlled robotic arm. They have also pioneered the incorporation of sensors into the prosthetic allowing the user to actually ‘feel’ - another step closer to developing a fully functional replacement limb.

Both these examples highlight in the interconnectivity occurring in these advanced technologies. From the designer and mechanical engineer, material scientist, biologist to the computer programmer, modern problems need complex solutions and require a significant level of collaboration.

For me, this was a perfect example of how STEM impacts peoples lives for the good.

STEM skills, at their core, are about solving problems. Obviously with the above example, designing a new robotic leg that allows a landmine victim to walk again does not completely ‘solve’ the trauma experienced. Counselling and emotional support would continue to be a vital part of overall healing. But the desire to help others is still a fundamental driving force for many people working in STEM fields, and one that is actively encouraged here at St Catherine’s.

The world our students will inherit poses many complex, multi-faceted challenges. With a growing population, shrinking resources, increasing pollution and climate change, the need to find solutions to these global problems will become increasingly urgent. They will require creative thinkers and problem solvers to look at the issues in a different way. Teaching STEM is less about learning specific content, as technology moves so quickly much will be redundant before there is a chance to use it. Rather, it is about teaching the skills and developing the confidence to use the tools available to solve problems. Our students will need to be more creative, more flexible and more adaptable, and will need to work collaboratively with a wider group of people than ever before.

Which brings me to what is my drive behind teaching STEM. Watching Dr Muderis highlighted the potential that advancements in technology can have to make material improvements in people's lives. I imagine the intellectual satisfaction of solving a problem and allowing people to see, hear or walk who have previously been unable to, is a hugely rewarding endeavour in which to devote one’s energy. The concept of service is a fundamental pillar of an education at St Catherine’s. My goal is to encourage the next generation of problem solvers, global citizens who have a desire to improve the lives of others and the health of the planet. Playing around with robots is fun, but it has a higher purpose and students tackling the small problems may hopefully one day have the courage to tackle the big ones.

Director of STEM and Innovations at St Catherine's Mr Rene Mercer
Director of STEM and Innovation
BSc Dip Ed