Aiming Higher: Improving Science Education in Victorian Schools

By Dr Catriona Nguyen-Robertson,
Senior Editor, Science Victoria

The world is changing. Automation, technological advances, and globalisation are changing the way we define careers and even live our lives. Entire job sectors are emerging, changing, or disappearing. People will increasingly change professions during their career, and even have multiple professions simultaneously. 

Similarly,  we need to adapt our skill sets for the changing world and workforce. Future careers will rely heavily on ‘21st century skills’: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving.1 STEM education lays the foundation for these skills, as well as the ability to understand and utilise data and information.

Photograph: Kenny Eliason via Unsplash.

However, people often don’t necessarily appreciate the importance of STEM and these vital skills until it’s too late – when they already need to be confidently using them. Australian school students’ participation in science and maths is declining or stagnating.2 Year 12 enrolment in science and mathematics subjects dipped in 2019, and still hasn’t returned to what it was.3

Multiple factors play a role in influencing participation in STEM education

Students are exposed to STEM and science identities (whether students can see themselves as “science people”) differently at different stages in their schooling. In addition, parent or guardian attitudes towards science can influence their children’s science achievement – and there are a number of factors connected with a parent’s perceptions and attitudes towards STEM.

The 2022–23 STEM Influencer Survey showed that STEM engagement is higher among parents from metropolitan locations, compared to those from regional and remote locations. It is also higher amongst parents from higher socioeconomic (SES) areas compared to parents from lower SES areas.4

When students see people like themselves underrepresented in the STEM workforce, or feel unsupported or unsuccessful in the space, they may be less likely to aspire to STEM careers. 

By age six, some students already will have lost interest.5

When looking at overall numbers, the gender divide paints a positive picture: the proportion of STEM subject enrolments from girls has increased over time. From 2013 to 2021, the proportion of STEM (including health) enrolments by girls increased from 48% to 51%.3 

However, their enrolment in maths has remained stagnant at ~48%, and women remain under-represented in information technology (24% of enrolments in 2021), physics and astronomy (24%), and engineering and related technologies (23%, down from 26% in 2013).3

The gap in STEM achievement between First Nations and non-First Nations students has remained steady over the past 20 years. First Nations students have lower STEM engagement and tend to have poorer performance (e.g., 68% of First Nations students scored below the international maths standard in Year 8, compared to 34% of non-First Nations students scoring below, with a similar gap seen in results for science.)5

Students from a low socio-economic status (SES) background are also more likely to have negative perceptions of STEM, and are less likely to pursue STEM beyond high school. SES can affect access to quality education (e.g., affordable school options), resources (e.g., additional tutoring and technologies), and extracurricular opportunities. A typical 15-year-old Australian from a low SES background is three years behind in mathematics and science compared to their high SES peers.5 

Remote, rural, and regional students are similarly falling behind in STEM education.

These factors often do not work in isolation, and they all impact interest and performance in STEM education. “Students’ demographics shouldn’t be predictors of their science participation to the extent that they are,” says Professor of STEM education at RMIT University, Prof. Amanda Berry. “But the reality is that they are.”

Teachers and schools also play a crucial role in shaping student participation and success in STEM education. By creating an inclusive and supportive learning environment, teachers can encourage students to actively engage in STEM, helping students overcome barriers to their participation.

But teaching STEM is no easy feat for teachers.

Although 98% of Australian educators (whether or not they teach STEM) believe that STEM skills and literacy are important, and 89% believe that they will provide future job security, fewer have confidence in teaching them.6

Photograph: Jeswin Thomas via Unsplash

It does not help that there has been an overwhelming amount of scientific knowledge generated in recent times – it is simply impossible to cover everything. 

“Topics that were included in the 1900 science curriculum were similar to my 1970’s education – but with new topics added,” says Prof. Jan van Driel, Professor of Science Education at the University of Melbourne. With even more content crammed in in the decades since, educators often have no choice but to decrease the amount of time they spend on each topic and only cover them superficially.

Textbooks also have a lack of a “hook” to draw students into topics and keep them interested. By moving away from textbooks, and instead connecting curriculum content with real-world concepts and applications, or providing more tailored resources, students may be more engaged.

Teachers are required to adhere to a curriculum that outlines individual subjects. While primary teachers can incorporate different learning areas in their lessons, secondary teachers find it difficult to implement a more integrated approach to STEM education at a secondary level.7 

This kind of approach would help students to tackle problems more holistically, and better understand links between disciplines and the relevance of STEM beyond what is taught in the classroom.7

We can tackle the stagnating interest in STEM education from multiple angles

While teachers have finite time and resources to bring contemporary scientific content to the classroom, they could partner with experts through school-industry partnerships, public institutions (e.g., museums and zoos), or volunteer programs (e.g., BrainSTEM, In2Science, and Skype a Scientist).8

Additionally, when educators frame the students’ learning around investigating problems, students can learn as they go rather than having the facts laid out for them. It could be anything from designing a greenhouse for the school garden, to designing a solution to a local council or industry problem. Victoria’s Tech Schools, for example, provide free programs for local school students to use their facilities (e.g., 3D-printers, laser cutters, etc.) to design prototypes to solve real-world challenges mapped to the curriculum.9

Primary school students using Virtual Reality (VR) headsets. Photograph: stem.T4L via Unsplash.

Advances in technology provide additional tools that can be adopted in the classroom. Simulations, games, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR) can enhance the learning experience. Using AR tools or VR headsets, students could attend virtual excursions around the world, out in space or inside the human body, visit historical locations, and conduct experiments. These technologies apply “gamification” (adding elements found in games) to classical education, making the process more engaging and accessible.

Lastly, public perceptions of teachers and what it means to be a STEM educator need to change. Being a teacher is stressful – 76% of Australian teachers experience significant stress during the work week – and it also gets a bad rap.10 An analysis of over 65,000 print media articles from 1996-2020 revealed that teachers are predominantly negatively portrayed.11 “Teacher bashing” is unfortunately not uncommon, and people consider teaching a “cushy” profession.

It’s no wonder so many teachers consider leaving the profession. COVID-19 exacerbated the problem, with the percentage of teachers planning to or considering leaving jumping from 58% in 2019 to over 72% in 2022.12 

Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 lockdowns did grow public appreciation of teachers: more than 40% of Australians have greater appreciation for the teaching profession after the transition to online learning.13

To aim higher for science education, we require a multifaceted approach that addresses the diverse needs of students, integrates relevant content, and provides robust support for teachers. STEM can too often be perceived as “too difficult” or not interesting by students throughout their education if they become disengaged or cannot see its relevance.

Recognising the impact of demographics on participation in education is crucial to create targeted strategies to ensure equitable access and engagement. Implementing more contemporary and integrated approaches can make science more accessible and exciting, bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and real-world applications. 

Furthermore, empowering teachers through resources and support systems is essential for fostering an environment where all students can thrive. By addressing these key areas, we can build a more inclusive, effective, and inspiring STEM education system now, and for future generations.

This article follows an event co-hosted by the Royal Society of Victoria, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and Science Teachers’ Association Victoria, supported by the Inspiring Victoria program. The event featured Prof Amanda Berry (Professor of STEM Education, RMIT University) and Prof Jan van Driel (Professor of Science Education, The University of Melbourne), with panellists Alexandra Abela (President, STAV) and Dr Brendan Rigby (Director, Tech Schools).


  1. Department of Education. 2022. Links to 21st century learning.
  2. Department of Education. (2022). Why is STEM important?
  3. Department of Industry, Science and Resources. (2023). Year 12 subject enrolment in STEM and other fields. STEM Equity Monitor.
  4. Department of Industry, Science and Resources. (2023). Parents’ perceptions and attitudes to STEM. STEM Equity Monitor.
  5. Department of Education. (2023). Which school students need STEM education.
  6. Department of Industry, Science and Resources. (2023). Teachers and career advisers’ perceptions and attitudes to STEM. STEM Equity Monitor.
  7. Lowrie, T., et al. (2017). STEM education for all young Australians: A Bright Spots Learning Hub Foundation Paper, for SVA, in partnership with Samsung. University of Canberra STEM Education Research Centre.
  8. Sign-up as a teacher, student, or mentor: and and
  9. Victorian Government. Tech Schools.
  10. Stapleton, P., et al. (2020). Psychological distress and coping styles in teachers: A preliminary study. Australian Journal of Education, 64(2), 127-146. Advance online publication.
  11. Mockler, N. (2022, July 11). No wonder no one wants to be a teacher: world-first study looks at 65,000 news articles about Australian teachers. The Conversation.
  12. Longmuir, F., et al. (2022). Australian teachers’ perceptions of their work in 2022. Monash University.
  13. Heffernan, A., et al. (2021). The Impact of COVID-19 on Perceptions of Australian Schooling: Research Brief. Monash University.