Teaching girls STEM will boost Australia’s academic results. Picture: AAP Image/Claudia Baxter
Teaching girls STEM will boost Australia’s academic results. Picture: AAP Image/Claudia Baxter

Teaching girls STEM will boost Australia’s academic results

Teenagers sit thousands of tests throughout their school life and many of them have fairly limited significance.

But every so often, there are those overwhelmingly important tests we need to pay attention to.

PISA - the Program for International Student Assessment - which occurs every three years, is one of those. The reason why it's such a crucial indicator of how our Australian teenagers are doing is because PISA measures the ability of 15-year-olds, right across the globe, to use their science, reading and maths knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.

Rote learning will not improve PISA results. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images
Rote learning will not improve PISA results. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

You can't rote-learn your way to achieving great PISA tests scores. Schools cannot prop-up their students' marks by drilling them, the way they might do for Australia's NAPLAN tests.

PISA is simply about getting teenagers to apply, often creatively, what they have learnt in English, Science and Maths, to find answers and solutions to real issues. Concepts like collaborative problem solving and financial literacy are built into PISA tests.

In fact, the skills PISA tests are analysing are very much aligned with the skills that are increasingly valued by employers. And that is why we should all be very concerned that Australia continues to slide down international rankings in PISA tests.

RELATED: Why are Australia's PISA results so bad?

There has been an important conversation about the performance of this year's Australian teenagers taking part in the PISA testing. For the first time, we have failed to exceed the OECD average in maths, and we've also slumped down science and reading rankings. Australian teenagers are three years behind top performing countries in mathematics, and almost two years behind in science.

These results are worrying, especially given STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills are in massive demand, and that demand will only increase in years to come.

STEM-based jobs make up 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations and higher paying jobs. The digital economy and new technology are transforming the future economic landscape. And demand for workers with skills in STEM is growing exponentially.

A recent examination of Australian job ads found that jobs requiring enterprise skills - skills like critical thinking, creativity and teamwork - have grown by over 200 per cent in the last three years.

We need to increase the number of girls learning STEM subjects. Picture: Tait Schmaal
We need to increase the number of girls learning STEM subjects. Picture: Tait Schmaal

Australia's STEM skills crisis is also disproportionately impacting our girls. Only 16 per cent of people working in STEM-skilled professions today are women - and about the same percentage of women are graduating from uni or TAFE with a STEM-related degree.

This disparity has real-world consequences, not just for Australian girls, but for our society and economy, and if left unchecked, could entrench new workforce inequalities for generations of women.

This concern is shared by government, parents, peak business bodies like the Business Council of Australia and the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, and successful grassroots movements that have sprung up in recent years to spark girls' interests in STEM and technology.

So how do we reverse our slide down global STEM rankings and empower young girls to see STEM and entrepreneurship as a fun and rewarding career pathway?

Like any complex problem, the solution will take a village. Government, industry and even parents must come together to ensure our girls have the mindset, the skill set and the tool set to navigate the future of work.

RELATED: What next for Australia's education system after abysmal PISA results?

We can start by demystifying the pathway into STEM and entrepreneurship. And we need to spend more time teaching our teenagers how to creatively apply the knowledge they gain in the classroom in real-word scenarios.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg recently launched The Academy for Enterprising Girls. The initiative is designed to be a fun and engaging platform for Australian girls aged 10-18 to develop their business skills, digital literacy and STEM capabilities.

The Academy for Enterprising Girls is the product of an alliance of government, business, technology, and education sectors all working together to upskill and prepare girls for a future workforce reliant on innovation, creativity and agility.

It involves an interactive online platform, which is now live, and features videos and contributions from high-profile business women and young 'girl founders', who are already running their own businesses.

We need to teach teens — especially girls — skills for the future workforce. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images
We need to teach teens — especially girls — skills for the future workforce. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

Women like Melanie Perkins who started Aussie success story Canva - a leading tech start-up now valued at over $1 billion. Julie Trell who founded muru-D to support founders creating technology to solve challenging global problems. And 13 year-old Tea Devow, a young Canberra girl who has started her own Indigenous clothing label.

In the year ahead, the Academy for Enterprising Girls will also offer a self-paced online e-learning program and an extensive in-person workshop program, across more than 90 Australian communities, beginning in NSW, QLD, Tasmania, ACT and NT. We live in a rapidly-changing global economy. We need to take these PISA scores seriously and we need

to begin prioritising teaching our teenagers, especially our girls, the skills that will be most valuable to them when they leave the classroom. If we don't do this, we risk generations of young Australians being locked out of jobs in the future.

Annie O'Rourke is the CEO of 89 Degrees East and Director of the Academy for Enterprising Girls.