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Yay, more 'STEM' grads! You're using your maths degree to do ... what?

Sciences train bright kids, commerce eats them up

By Richard Chirgwin, 5 Nov 2015

Comment There's a good reason why the big brains at the top of science in Australia are suddenly singing hosannas to entrepreneurs.

Someone's finally pointed out to chief scientist Ian Chubb and CSIRO (federal agency the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) boss Larry Marshall that the STEM (science, technology, maths and engineering) graduates they'd like to issue from our university sausage-machines would be unemployable in today's Australia.

The top-down conviction that we're not training the STEM-sters (for example, CSIRO kicked off a campaign in August using young researchers to act as public advocates of science) is problematic if we can't employ the universities' output.

As I learned this week, dining with a group of astronomers in Sydney for a conference, the parlous state of science in this country makes a mockery of the political fad of calling for education to drive people towards STEM.

After said astronomers had lamented their own futures – overseas, since astronomy has suffered under the current government – the conversation turned to how the sciences are creating domain experts in software for the world of commerce.

Take the Murchison Widefield Array radio-telescope in Western Australia: to cope with its data flood, someone has to understand the incoming data, and someone else has to write software so that the supercomputers at Pawsey only store what astronomers can use.

That's a ferociously difficult problem, and the kind of person who can answer it properly deserves the reward they get: snapped by Google, paid a wage that's light years beyond astronomy budgets ... and then set to work on advertising algorithms.

So it is with a great many scientific disciplines: they end up training the people the world of commerce won't train, because why would you spend your own money creating data scientists?

There are, however, only so many Googles, ad farms and finance companies in the world, and fewer that are interested in employing Australians.

That's why the thought leaders have turned instead to the entrepreneur question: they're entertaining the vain hope that Australia can create enough Atlassians that a local Silicon harbour/outback/kangaroo/whatever could at least employ the STEM grads that won't actually find employment in their core disciplines.

50 cents' worth of clue

The other problem with the STEM education debate is that it's completely at odds with the political obsession with teaching K-12 students "the basics".

News outlets and politicians are right now weighing into a ludicrous debate over how our education system is failing because some Year 12 students in Victoria were stumped by a bit of Euclidian geometry in their final exam.

If you can't calculate the angles on a 50-cent coin, the argument goes, you're stupid or ill-educated, your curriculum has probably been hijacked by communists, and you've certainly missed out on "the basics".

It's a stupid position to take, because Euclidian geometry is only a "basic" mathematical skill for a subset of STEM disciplines, and it typifies the belief that students are best served by rote-learning tasks that wouldn't tax the processing power of a Nokia 3210.

Does Euclid-as-mental-arithmetic bestow any useful skill on anybody other than a surveyor or a mechanical engineer? Of course not. Statistics is far more a "universal" skill across university disciplines (and everyday life) than geometry.

If you want someone who's equipped to survive in today's world – even as a scientist – then Before Current Era arithmetic is useless. At least people who leave high school with decent statistics will be less likely to play the pokies, smoke cigarettes, deny climate change or eat bacon.

The downside would be that by Year 11, any 16-year-old who understands statistics and wants a job will stay well away from STEM. ®

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