Possible areas of discussion, sharing of practice and innovation

The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Special Interest Group comprises academics and professional staff working in and researching first year teaching and learning in a considerable range of disciplines. In the sciences and mathematics, these disciplines include biology, genetics, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geosciences and geography, as well as the biomedical sciences, such as microbiology, psychology, physiology, psychology, immunology and developmental biology. In technology, disciplines include information technology and systems, computer science, software engineering, multimedia, and information management. In engineering, research and discipline areas (amongst many others) include nanotechnology, environmental engineering, aerospace engineering, and biomedical imaging. These wide-ranging disciplines and sub-disciplines share many similar challenges associated with students’ first year at university, including transition and retention, and student learning, achievement and skills development. For educators and professional staff working in these areas, there is considerable opportunity for discussion, sharing of best practice, and collaboration for innovation. Some of the big ticket questions in first year Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education are:


1. Teaching approaches, generic skills and the use of ICT

How can we structure, embed and scaffold approaches in first year STEM subjects that integrate the physical sciences, quantitative skills and rapidly-evolving information and communication technologies, particularly in relation to modes of learning, situated learning spaces, curriculum materials and collaborative learning?


2. Is there an optimal model for orientation, transition and retention?

  • What is the optimal balance of social and academic activities for effective orientation and transition?
  • Should transition activities integrate discipline-based learning and skills development, particularly for students without prior learning in particular subjects?
  • How can ice-breakers and other informal activities be best integrated into already-crowded curricula?


3. The massification of higher education and increases in student diversity

The higher education landscape has changed considerably over the past decade, with a much greater percentage of 18-25 year old entering university courses than previously. The benefits of higher education are considerable, including those to both society and the individual. However, without appropriate resourcing, students can be left floundering, particularly those from identified disadvantaged groups such as low SES and mature age students, those with a disability, and students who are first in family.


4. Development of students’ generic skills and critical thinking abilities

Inquiry-oriented learning (including POGIL, IBL, scenario-based learning, Inquiry-guided learning) approaches are more challenging (for students and tutors alike), demanding, time-consuming and therefore costly, but the benefits are considerable. How can such activities be best integrated into first year learning programs?


5. Assessment, absolutely necessary, but often poorly executed.

What are good examples of best practice in formative and summative assessments? Related to this, how can we develop objective, accurate assessment of practical skills? (e.g. experimental design, hypothesis testing, and proficiency in practical techniques; team-work and other collaborative learning opportunities).


6. The casualization of the academic workforce.

Increasing first year numbers in large foundation subjects, together with pressure on research and teaching academics to publish and secure grant income, has meant an increasing reliance on non-tenured, casualised academics. These staff members receive at best only a passing introduction to learning and teaching practices, and many of them are totally unequipped to deal with the myriad of educational and social issues that arise in different learning environments, including teaching labs, tutorials, and the field.


First year STEM education landscape is gaining increasing momentum, in part via establishment of several OLT-funded discipline networks. These include the Science and Mathematics network of educators (SaMnet), Vision and Innovation in Biology Education (VIBEnet), the Collaborative University Biomedical Education network (CUBEnet), Chemistry discipline network (Chemnet), Physics education group (PEG) and Australian Mathematical Sciences Learning and teaching network (AMSLaNet). For links see http://www.acds.edu.au/tlcentre/networks/discipline-networks/



Dr Gerry RaynerGerry_Rayner
Monash University

Gerry is an education-focussed academic and coordinator of first year biology at Monash University. Gerry’s research interests range across inquiry-oriented learning, peer-assisted learning, the integration and effectiveness of information and communication technologies in science, curriculum development, improvement and assessment, evaluation of science orientation and transition programs, and academic-professional collaborations to enhance student generic skills. Gerry has contributed to the ACARA Australian senior biology curriculum and was a team member of the recently completed OLT-funded Transitions in Biology project. Gerry has received a number of awards including a Monash Vice-chancellor’s Award for Social Inclusion, Monash Teaching Accelerator Award, Vice-Chancellors Special Commendation for Teaching Excellence, and Dean of Science Awards for Excellence in Teaching.