GLOBAL: Tide turning for STEM subjects

Countries around the world are trying to prevent a continuing decline in interest among students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM - the so-called key vulnerable subjects. Professor John Holman, director of STEM subjects at the UK National Science Learning Centre, said Britain was not alone among advanced economies that had experienced shortages of graduates in these areas. While other EU countries, Japan, the US and Scandinavia were also suffering, the picture was different in developing nations.

Holman pointed to the Rose (Relevance of science education) study carried out by Norway's Oslo University in 40 nations which revealed that 15-year-olds in the richer countries were far less interested in science than their contemporaries in the poorest.

Australia, along with the UK, is looking at ways of attracting more students into the STEM subjects. Representatives from the CSIRO, the Australian Academy of Science and the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies last week appeared before a House of Representatives standing committee on education and training in Canberra.

In Britain, STEM subjects are in a healthier state than they were in 2004, as the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced last week. In an upbeat statement, Professor David Eastwood, the council's chief executive, said Hefce's £350 million (US$606 million) six-year programme that started in 2005 was helping to "turn the corner".

In 2004, there were pessimistic reports of closures of university chemistry departments and a declining interest in these subjects among students in schools and universities. Latest figures show a significant growth in the number of students taking STEM subjects.

The universities admissions service data showed that maths acceptances had risen by 8% from 2007-08, chemistry was up by 4.4% and physics by 3.3%. These increases built on those since 2005-06 when maths rose by 12%, chemistry by 12% and physics by 10%. Engineering fell by 0.8% but since 2007 numbers had increased by 6.4%.

Eastwood said that England's teacher development agency had reported a recent very strong interest in these vulnerable subjects for teacher training. "This is one of the unintended benefits of the economic slowdown."

Holman added hat he always told his students they had a wider range of career options if they decided to take any of the STEM subjects, including teaching.

In Australia, the House of Representatives standing committee on education and training is examining claims of declining enrolments in the enabling sciences at Australian universities. Committee chair Sharon Bird said: "Those who have identified a continuing decline in the hard sciences attribute the decline to a range of factors including a lack of interest in school science, the perceived difficulty of studying science compared to other subjects and the lack of awareness about the career opportunities for science graduates."

"While these are complex issues, the committee is keen to ensure that enough is being done to encourage students to pursue careers in science, engineering and technology."