Scaling STEM education in one of the world’s largest school jurisdictions

 

Child using VR in classrom

Abstract

In one of the largest school jurisdictions in the world, Microsoft technology provides the backbone for an innovative program to spark students’ excitement for STEM. In New South Wales, Australia, teachers and administrators turned to Microsoft solutions to solve a fundamental challenge: connecting students’ love of technology to a STEM curriculum that will prepare them for their future careers. By sharing resources and enhancing curricular needs, the NSW Department of Education is building teachers’ capacity to make STEM education matter in the lives of their students.

Scaling STEM education in one of the world’s largest school jurisdictions

A 2016 report by the Office of the Chief Scientist in Australia found that STEM careers offered higher pay potential and lower unemployment than the alternatives, and yet, despite these advantages, the number of people in Australia who count as STEM-qualified is actually growing 10% more slowly than the non-STEM qualified population. It falls to schools to address and correct that gap, and in the most populous region of Australia, the New South Wales Department of Education (NSW DoE) is doing just that.

In addressing the need for more and better STEM education, the jurisdiction faces a fundamental challenge: how to transform their STEM curriculum and technology infrastructure to make exciting new technology sustainable and relevant for thousands of teachers and students of all ages. Michelle Michael, Principal Education Officer, STEMShare Community Information Technology Directorate, NSW Department of Education explains that “Research published in Research in Science Education has shown that students come into high school with a positive outlook on school in general and then things change pretty quickly within the first year. If they are unable to see any ‘real life, real world’ connections to the math they’re doing when they move into high school, they almost package up the knowledge and put it on the shelf for later. It would appear that what teachers teach has to be seen by the individual students as being able to be applied to their daily lives

In other words, despite being one of the most technologically savvy, “digitally native” populations in history, and despite a general interest in STEM, many students today have a disconnect between their personal use of technology and the underlying math and science that makes those technologies usable in the first place.

In one of the largest school jurisdictions in the world—second only in size to New York City—the NSW DoE trusted Microsoft Education technology to harness students’ creativity and love for technology, and in so doing teach them valuable, future-ready STEM skills. When it came to investing in the 800,000 students spread across roughly 2,250 schools, NSW DoE chose Windows 10 and the Microsoft ecosystem.

Teaching with Confidence

It’s not just the jurisdiction leadership who is eager to improve STEM education. “We have video of students talking about how important this work is to them. They know these are the types of skills that they’re going to need moving into an undefined work place. Very young students are even telling us that. So, whether that’s because it’s in the media, or because their families are talking about it, or they are hearing it in schools, kids know they’ve got to have these skills,” said Michelle.

“The most valuable component of this particular program is that it actually makes teachers better and more confident,” said Michelle. This happens in part because teachers can support other teachers, by sharing lessons across Sharepoint and Microsoft Teams. It also happens because the platform itself is simple to use, despite its wide range of applications and uses. Indeed, this has been one of the main requirements for thinking and deploying IT resources across the NSW DOE. Mark Greentree, Director Technology for Learning, Information Technology Directorate, NSW Department of Education, is emphatic:

Everything we apply whether it’s a computer equipment rollout, whether it’s choosing devices to go into schools, whether it’s learning tools to go on those devices, whether it’s equipment to accompany those devices or the challenges that we implement into the schools – If it isn’t simple, reliable and effective it doesn’t go out.

Democratising STEM education across schools and communities

NSW DoE worked to develop resource libraries that would enable schools to share STEM resources and test out technology without making untenable investments, and they work for a wide variety of schools—not just schools with existing technological capacity. To increase STEM-qualified graduates, schools must democratise improvements in STEM education. Author William Gibson once suggested that the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed. NSW DoE didn’t want that observation reflected in their educational reality.

“Whether they are in an advanced school, or still fairly immature in the capacity to utilise technology, everything has been designed to enable access and really lift the bar across the state,” says Mark. Schools with smaller budgets or students from low-income households aren’t compelled to purchase new devices, since each STEM kit provides exactly what students will need to engage. NSW DoE chose 1,210 HP ProBook devices and 110 HP zVR Backpack devices and each device comes fully equipped with Windows 10 and all the necessary programs. Students and schools don’t need to provide anything but the lesson, and all students, regardless of means, experience the same technology.

Real Confidence, Virtual Worlds

Just as NSW teachers have built community by sharing lessons on SharePoint and Teams, Microsoft offers extensive lesson support and an educator community for STEM apps like Minecraft: Education Edition.

Minecraft is just the tip of the spear. As Mark Greentree notes, “Just last week we enabled schools to get the full functionality of things like Paint 3D and those types of software programs that enable schools to experiment with augmented reality in the teaching learning space.”

Indeed, Microsoft is an active partner in the NSW DoE’s efforts to improve STEM education, working with the teachers and administrators to develop future-ready technology based on schools’ needs. For example, says Greig Tardiani, Schools Technology Innovation Lead, Information Technology Directorate, NSW Department of Education, “Minecraft: Education Edition features heavily in STEM, and our virtual reality kit is based entirely around the Windows mixed reality platform.” As program managers look to improve the learning tools, they are exploring potential links between Minecraft and 3D printing. Greig believes that they will “see both of them playing an integral part a little bit later in the year”

If this all sounds promising, even downright exciting, none of that is by accident. Michelle concludes, “The only way we can educate students is to actually get them engaged in what we teach, and what we are doing with technology is engaging students and opening up the doors to high quality teaching and learning.”