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Inspiring the next generation of scientists in Australia

Three digital technology students sitting on the group with an iPad and spherical robot.
Digital technology students at Vermont Secondary College are working together to explore the capability of this spherical robot.

Supplied: Sam Moskwa

Making students fall in love with the theories of science can be difficult, but the CSIRO are conquering the task in a unique way.

Instead of teaching complex concepts and formulas, the STEM Professionals in Schools program brings fun into the classroom.

Digital Technology students at Vermont Secondary College in Victoria have had a glimpse into the future.

When CSIRO computer scientist Sam Moskwa brought in some small shiny objects the students thought nothing of it, until they were told they could operate these spherical robots with their smart devices.

Students at Vermont Secondary College are having a good time with the ‘sphero’ robots brought by CSIRO scientist Sam Moskwa.
A group of students at Vermont Secondary College are having a good time with the ‘sphero’ robots.

Supplied: Sam Moskwa

"Some of them are way ahead of others, they are really interested in technology and programming," Mr Moskwa says.

"They've really got skills, and are way ahead of what I had at that level, at that age."

Even the kinds of questions the students are asking come as quite a surprise to Mr Moskwa.

"They don't think it's a toy, and just for fun," Mr Moskwa says. "I've been impressed by the level and the speed, even someone who has no experience about programming. They pick up this stuff so quickly."

"It's like holding the future in your hands," student Amelia Moore says.

Mr Moskwa believes many students don't see a career in science as viable, but hopes they are still able to utilise some of the skills they are learning in the future.

Teachers advocating science

School teachers are also playing a crucial part in this unique program.

Sarah Chapman, head of science at Townsville State High School, wants to share her passion for science with students.

As the winner of the 2013 Prime Minister's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching, she is a strong advocate of giving students more practical experience in science fields.

She believes the biggest benefit students receive from programs like CSIRO's is showing them how science is used in real life situations.

"Students see science in a particular way… in a lab, with the lab coat, the crazy scientist kind of stereotype," Ms Chapman says.

"Then don't actually realise that scientists can work out in the field a lot of the time, doing things that students might do on the weekend like fishing, or walking through a rainforest. That connection to the real world and showing students that science is everywhere… I think it's so, so very important."

Students at Townsville State High School collecting water samples in the marshes.
Students at Townsville State High School in CSIRO’s STEM Professionals in Schools program.

Supplied: CSIRO

According to Ms Chapman, there are some students in the program who have been inspired to pursue tertiary education as a result of the program.

"We actually had students who considered not to go to university, but changed their mind by the time they finished Year 12."

Sarah says today's science classes are more dynamic, and that schools and teachers are trying to get students engaged as much as possible through practical activities.

However she also admits there are still many challenges.

"The trend in Australia is that students are disengaging and not enrolling in senior science," Ms Chapman says.

Sam Moskwa thinks the challenge for Australian schools is getting more young people into teaching.

"I think the bigger problem is actually inspiring people who are already passionate about STEM to get into teaching," Mr Moskwa says.

"Because the work force of teachers is obviously aging, ... going out and teaching our teachers programming might not be the most effective way, so getting the generation who have grown up with robots and programming to then say a viable career path is to get into teaching."

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