Year 12 student, Laura Johnston, chose not to pick a single STEM subject to study for her higher school certificate because she didn’t want to ruin her Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR).
Johnston – who was a panelist at a Data 61 event yesterday – believes that there’s an ‘opportunity cost’ associated with choosing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at high school.
Johnston told the audience she chose humanities subjects because they come “more naturally” to her and she doesn’t have to study as hard.
“So to get the best ATAR I could, a smarter idea would be to choose humanity-based subjects,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, I like science and maths and all those other STEM subjects but I am better at humanities.”
Johnston’s fellow panelist, Intel’s local boss, Kate Burleigh, said she was also a humanities student and only did mathematics when she was studying in the 1980s because it was compulsory.
Burleigh has worked at Intel for the past 17 years working her way up from marketing roles to the position of Australia and New Zealand managing director. She has a master’s degree in business management and marketing from the University of Technology in Sydney.
“We obviously have a crisis … there are not enough students adopting STEM-based subjects,” said Burleigh. “But I am an example of do what I say not what I do because I was a humanities student.
“With the type of job that I do, an MBA is fine but there are certain [divisions] of Intel, there’s no way that they would employ me and that’s a good thing because they are engineering and science driven. There’s room for all subjects.”
Burleigh has two daughters – one who is a humanities student and another who is maths and science focused.
“I’ve heard a very similar argument [to Johnston’s] from my year 11 daughter which is that if she wants the best [ATAR], it’s just not practical for her to choose that.
“The ATAR is not helping our challenge at the moment around getting more students undertaking STEM [subjects],” Burleigh said.
Australia is facing a skills crisis with a projected gap of more than 100,000 ICT workers expected between now and 2020, according to a recent report.
The study, Australia’s Digital Pulse, produced by Deloitte Access Economics and the Australian Computer Society found that although there has been a 5 per cent growth in worker demand, the declining number of graduates with ICT qualifications means the industry will experience a gap in available workers.
Panelist, Dr Kathryn Mackey from educational program, Queensland Academies, agreed that young people are concerned about subjects they will study to achieve the best ATAR score to enter university.
Dr Mackey said the organisation is working with staff and students on ‘cycles of inquiry’ around innovative thinking, focusing on the pre-conditions for innovation and invention, and what constitutes the inventive process in the design thinking cycle.
“Particularly how we analyse success and competition in the business sector, reflect upon those consequences and affect real change in communities. And also not be afraid to reap the rewards of intellectual risk taking.”
Meanwhile, Data 61’s chief scientist, professor, Bob Williamson - who was also a panelist - turned his interest in ham radios very early in his life into a career in the technology industry.
“Radios are signal and noise – you could say poetically that all life is signal and noise and that’s what I do now with machine learning, which is extracting signals out of patterns of data in everything.”
Williamson believes that a 'fear of failure' and investment in time is preventing students from going down the STEM path.
"Perhaps part of our problem is thinking in these rigid categories. You are either doing the maths of science stream or you're not, it's completely false dichotomy. What we are seeing now in leading universities is a breaking down of that. We do not need all of our students to do umpteen courses - if a lot of them do a little bit, that's already enormously valuable.
"You don't have to do it all in school, if you didn't do it in school, it doesn't matter, you can pick it up later on," he said.
Professor Williamson said his daughter had some "maths anxiety" which she has overcome with night classes to improve her knowledge in this area.
"The idea that you have to make a decision as teenager when the world is a confusing place and that locks you in for the rest of your life - that's the frightening part," he said.
Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter:@ByronConnolly