While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull may have put innovation front and centre, technology education is still not where it should be in Australia.
Computers running programs or executing code are everywhere and with the Internet of Things destined to become an integral part of our everyday lives, technology will only become more pervasive. This means we need to start building up a strong technology workforce now if we are going to benefit from the opportunities this field can bring in the future.
Future proofing the next generation
According to an October 2015 publication from the Queensland Government, #codingcounts: A discussion paper on coding and robotics in Queensland schools, 60 per cent of new jobs require skills held by only 20 per cent of the workforce, with 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations requiring science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills and knowledge. The publication also states that 40 per cent of Australian jobs are at risk of being automated in the next 10 to 15 years.
Despite such trends being well known among educators and state government education departments, computer studies still has a way to go in becoming a key core subject taught in Australian schools. Australia lags far behind the United Kingdom where coding is already compulsory for all students aged 5 to 16 years, and in 2016 Finland is integrating across all subjects for students 7 to 15 years old. To add to this, Australia is already languishing near the bottom of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) in encouraging students to take up STEM courses.
One way the government has addressed this issue is to import skills from overseas. However, a long-term solution to this supply and demand problem is to ensure STEM education is properly ingrained in the school system.
A new digital literacy
While some people may question the necessity of including a subject like coding in an already crowded curriculum, ScopeIT Education's founder and CEO Frank Lucisano argues that it’s vital. “It’s the new digital literacy. It’s not about learning to program. Digital technology is so important in education and work today – it’s almost impossible to work in a job where you’re not using computers. Learning how to code also develops problem-solving, comprehension and mathematical skills.”
Private industry filling the gap
Inspired by Code.org and similar initiatives, Lucisano started his company because too many schools wanted to offer computer studies, but didn’t have the teachers with the skills or the facilities. “I cold call schools and most of them are interested because they understand it’s important. But running computer courses is so expensive. Most schools have computer hardware but 90 per cent of schools don’t have adequate hardware and software, they don’t have the funds to keep everything up-to-date, or their teachers don’t have the skills.”
ScopeIT Education has a number of mobile computer labs and teachers that travel from school to school and run various computer-based courses including coding, app programming and 3D printing. It’s not the only private company trying to enhance STEM education in schools. Intel is supporting Makerspaces in Australia and all over the world, and Microsoft is working with state education departments to deliver technology and industry-accredited courses through the Microsoft IT Academy, with students receiving credit towards their certificates of education.
Taking tech further
For the more technology literate who are keen on learning more, there is a range of camps, competitions and networking events. The FIRST® Robotics Competition offers high school students between 14 and 18 years the chance to build a robot and pit its abilities against other teams.
Code Camp runs during the school holidays and teaches coding to children from Kindergarten to Year 8. Also, the Code Like a Girl networking event in Melbourne gathers like-minded girls who enjoy coding, with the aim of getting more schoolgirls into computer courses and more females in technology leadership roles.
However, in order to build a healthy supply of technologists for the future, Lucisano argues that it starts with the school curriculum. “These initiatives are of great benefit and a lot of fun, but they’re expensive to run and mainly attract people who already are interested in computing. If we’re really serious about STEM education, we need to build this into the curriculum right from Kindergarten."