Society separates life from learning, but learning is a lifelong pursuit. If we want more students to follow STEM career paths, we need more STEM career paths to engage children outside the classroom, in authentic real-life contexts.
We all know children who want to be builders, doctors, or characters from Paw Patrol. But how many kids dream of becoming archaeologists? Ethical hackers? Snake milkers, taxidermists, or tech entrepreneurs? Every second kid is a YouTuber, but no one wants to study scatology (which is strange, considering the scatological humour typical of most preschoolers).
When my son was a toddler, he dreamed of becoming a garbage truck driver. We may-or-may-not have chased a certain truck (in our pyjamas) on multiple occasions. Non-parents might consider this to be an odd hobby, but I suspect it’s a sacred right of passage for many Australian children. My son may never accomplish his childhood dream of collecting people's rubbish, but it doesn’t matter, because he knows the option exists.
When I was a kid, my childhood dreams did not seem so achievable. None of my fantasy occupations were strictly fictional (with the exception of anything time travel related) but it didn’t matter, because I "knew" those options didn't exist. I’d never met an author, historian, archaeologist, scientist, cartographer, or anthropologist. My achievable life choices seemed limited to the mundane realm of my perceivable reality; comprised mainly of parents and teachers. So guess what I became? (Hint – I’m not an astrophysicist.)
There is nothing wrong with being a parent, a teacher, or a garbage collector. They are all important roles. But there is something sad about children being so disconnected from wider society, their perception of reality becomes blinkered. Kids need to know what the real version of real is. Kids need to know they can study animal poo for a living. Kids need to know scientists aren't all evil geniuses with frizzy hair and test-tube-themed décor. Well, some of them might be. And fictional representations are important, because that’s how we experience concepts and experiences outside our own paradigms. But real-life representation matters.
Recently, my children and I attended an archaeological dig at Mandurah Community Museum, during which, archaeologists from Extent Heritage engaged the public, answered questions, and involved members of our community in the excavation process.
Archaeologist, Peter Douglas, gave a public presentation about the excavation, alongside museum curator, Nicholas Reynolds, who included a healthy dose of local folklore in his fascinating talk about the history of the building itself.
Local adults – and children – were encouraged to work alongside the archaeologists, as volunteers in the excavation outside the old school room. My daughters used measuring tape, rulers, and graph paper to create a scale drawing of the inner wall of one pit. Every centimetre of graph paper represented ten centimetres of earth. My children spent several hours meticulously measuring and drawing, learning about stratigraphy, and speaking with the archaeologists. Their work will be included in the excavation report, and the skills they learned in the process won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Just for the record, kids can (and will) do science and maths for fun… especially when there is an authentic ‘real world’ purpose behind their efforts.
Archaeologists, Ryan Crawford and Helen Munt, taught the younger children how to use trowels and brushes to excavate sandpits. Each child was given a bucket and a pan, for finding smaller objects, and was shown how to bag and label the artefacts they found. My son was excited to find obsidian, a spoon, and some teeth (among other things) in his pit.
During the activity for younger children, I was surprised by how many kids genuinely expected to find dinosaur bones. I wondered why these children (who clearly knew a lot about dinosaurs) were unaware of the difference between archaeology and palaeontology. Then I remembered most of them have probably never met a palaeontologist, and it all made sense. We live in a world where children are segregated from society. In some ways, this is appropriate (eg, child labour laws are important) but on the whole, segregation deprives children of real-life learning experiences.
Schools, museums, libraries, and community groups do what they can to educate the community, especially children. Dedicated staff members and volunteers provide invaluable resources (and experiences) across a variety of disciplines. I am so grateful to these heroes, who will probably never understand how deeply their dedication has enriched my children’s lives and minds.
But our culture does not always value the role of children, or their need to authentically engage with our world.
Veronica Smith, founder of The YACC Project, worked in the traditional education system for 30 years. When she realised the needs of Generation Z weren’t being met in most classrooms, she left to explore other options. Veronica now facilitates a range of programs through The YACC Project, all of which are centred around engaging youth in real-life learning, with an emphasis on social entrepreneurship and enterprise skills.
“Gen Z have grown up during a time when we have seen massive rapid change,” said Veronica, when I asked her what makes this generation different, in terms of how they learn. “They’ve had to develop the skills and abilities to manage that. They are the most connected generation of all time.”
Veronica believes project-based learning, delivered within an entrepreneurship framework, can meet students’ needs more deeply than traditional schooling. According to Veronica:
“Entrepreneurs are able to create solutions to big problems. The entrepreneur is the visionary, the big thinker. Entrepreneurship allows young people to develop the traits and characteristics that will support them to be more flexible, mobile, agile – creative in their problem solving – and more confident to give things a go. Rich learning – engaging learning – can happen when you are focused on an entrepreneurship framework, particularly around numeracy and mathematical concepts.”
The YACC Project has grown organically in the three years since its inception. Class sizes are capped at ten students, in order to maintain a highly individualised facilitation of real-life skills and autonomous learning in a nurturing, democratic environment. Veronica has "observed over and over again, with so many diverse types of young people, the process they go through [at The YACC Project], from a learning perspective, is very empowering.”
Veronica Smith, an entrepreneur herself, is motivated by authentically understanding what the community needs, and facilitating accordingly. Data provided by the government funded research initiative, Foundation for Young Australians (FYA), backs up the values and framework Veronica has constructed via experience and intuition.
According to FYA, “courses that teach enterprise skills (such as problem-solving, communication and teamwork) can increase the speed of attaining full-time work by 17 months.”
If learning enterprise skills in a course can have such a dramatic effect, imagine the impact of engaging in actual enterprise.
The number one barrier to young people finding full-time work, as told by FYA, in their report, The New Work Reality, is a lack of work experience. This is hardly a surprise when the majority of Australian students are raised in a bubble of replications and work sheets, isolated from wider society. The top accelerating factor for employment, on the other hand, is (surprise!) enterprise skills in education.
FYA’s research recommends we, “Consider new models for work integrated learning to ensure young people can gain the critical relevant work experience they need alongside their education.”
Most parents are not policy makers, and have little control over how their children’s education is implemented and delivered. However, there are many ways to enhance education outside the classroom, by facilitating authentic engagement.
“Around the world, the most progressive education systems are focusing on developing the ‘new work smart’ workforce of the future. They offer immersive, project-based and real-world learning experiences that go beyond the classroom environment, such as working with local businesses or facilitating art and film projects in local communities. These learning experiences are best suited to developing the future-proof enterprising and career management skills that will be most in demand and most highly portable in the future of work, and instil in young people the enthusiasm for ongoing learning that will be critical for their future success.”
By the time today’s children are old enough to work, entirely new careers will exist, and others will have become obsolete. This is the nature of our rapidly changing world. Transferable skills, attitudes, and knowledge acquired by children in the process of simply participating in ‘the real world’ may become invaluable to the person they’ll be in the future.
“Research tells us that children’s early experience builds brain architecture and lays the foundation for one’s lifelong thinking skills and approach to learning, both critical roots of STEM success. After all, the STEM disciplines require not only content knowledge but also robust thinking dispositions—such as curiosity and inquiry, questioning and skepticism, assessment and analysis—as well as a strong learning mindset and confidence when encountering new information or challenges. These need to be developed in a child’s early education, beginning in infancy and continuing through third grade to lay the roots for STEM success.” (McClure et al., 2017)
Today’s children are the guardians of tomorrow’s world. All of society will benefit when kids spend more time learning alongside adults – engaged in real-world tasks of relevance and interest – and less time being conditioned into apathy, by subtle segregation, blinkered perception, and a lack of practical experience.
There are plenty of opportunities for real-world learning, if you know where to look. Through citizen science projects, volunteering, entrepreneurship, workshops, zoos, museums, and libraries, families can access an array of amazing hands-on experiences, connect with others in their community, and create lasting memories.
The most important question to ask your child is not, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but, “What would you like to learn about today?”
Nanci Nott is an Australian author who believes in dismantling traditional pedagogy in parenting and education, for the purpose of raising freethinking, compassionate, world-changers.
McClure, E. R., Guernsey, L., Clements, D. H., Bales, S. N., Nichols, J., Kendall-Taylor, N., & Levine, M. H. (2017). STEM starts early: Grounding science, technology, engineering, and math education in early childhood. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.
Foundation for Young Australians in partnership with AlphaBeta. (2017). The New Work Smarts: Thriving in the New Work Order. Australia. https://www.fya.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/FYA_TheNewWorkSmarts_July2017.pdf
Foundation for Young Australians in partnership with AlphaBeta. (2017). The New Work Reality. Australia. https://www.fya.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/FYA_TheNewWorkReality_sml.pdf