Making links with schools to support STEM


Ensuring students have the background knowledge for successful tertiary study is a crucial factor in promoting engineering pathways.

CPIT (now Ara Institute of Canterbury) launched a new STEM strategy last year which included appointing a STEM coordinator. Part of this role involves engaging students in science, technology, engineering and maths-related activities, aiming to get more students enrolling in and completing STEM courses. The programme focuses on skills identified by employers as key for careers in these fields.

Establishing a new role – STEM coordinator

Raising awareness of pathways into engineering is vital but often it’s too late – students have already dropped the STEM subjects they need. When CPIT (Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology) established the new role of STEM coordinator in 2014, it aimed to:

  • Encourage students to continue taking STEM subjects at school

  • Prepare them for success in CPIT STEM courses

  • Retain a skilled workforce in Christchurch

  • Make all sectors of the market aware of STEM-related training.

The role included having input into new STEM qualifications to meet the demand for a skilled workforce to ensure a fast-evolving, high-tech manufacturing and science sector in New Zealand. STEM Coordinator Miranda Satterthwaite previously taught and was involved in curriculum development for Digital Technologies at Christchurch Boys’ High School. Following the loss of access to equipment and buildings in the Canterbury earthquakes, she worked with her students on the practical robotics skills and electronics technology they needed using the CPIT labs. With many schools still experiencing disruption, providing a suitable venue and equipment has been a core part of the activities organised to support teachers and engage students.

Coordinating the ‘big picture’ for schools

In establishing links with schools, Miranda looked to a lead teacher or ‘champion’, someone in the Technology or Science faculty ready to get things moving. Digital Technologies teacher John Creighton, Burnside High School, has been involved in making the links work. He had previously entered students in the VEX Robotics and Evolocity programmes, “which are good for STEM subjects, with the engineering, problem-solving and planning skills involved”. However, he points out, “The entry point can be quite difficult. It’s a big investment which really targets a small number of kids. The effect is huge though – students involved in VEX Robotics are really engaged, carry on with the right subjects and a number have moved into mechatronics.”

The great advantage of CPIT’s involvement, John says, is that it gives schools “that big picture coordination. It keeps the momentum going, and using the CPIT facilities makes it real – it’s not like three or four kids in a little room at school working with mechatronic Lego”. There’s a lot of value for the students, he adds, in mixing with similar kids from other schools.

Setting students up for success

CPIT has picked up various initiatives which involve students in using maths and physics, to make the programmes more accessible to schools. “Something like Aerodynamix brings these subjects to life,” says Miranda. “These programmes are more than bells and whistles – the kids light up, they fall in love with the maths, physics, or coding they’re doing and choose these options at school.” As well as encouraging students to enrol in in-demand tertiary qualifications, it also prepares them to successfully complete CPIT’s STEM courses.

An IT initiative evolved from the CPIT Tech Girls group, formed in 2014 to support the women studying in that area.  Conversations revealed that many made the decision to study ICT at Year 7/8, an age when students really engage with what they’re learning, so the new ITGrls workshop was set up to specifically target girls at that year level.

Other initiatives focus on increasing Maori and Pasifika achievement in NCEA Level 2-3 Maths and Physics, setting them up for success in STEM courses. CPIT has a partnership with Te Waka Unua School and is working with Year 7/8 teachers and students on a large Technology project. Miranda says that because many Maori/Pasifika feel a particular connection to the environment, CPIT is engaging with students around environmental and aqua science. This also leads towards the new Laboratory Technician qualification to be offered in 2016.

Measuring the success of tertiary/industry links

While it can be hard to quantify the success of initiatives such as this, things are looking good. Some of the students involved in Vex Robotics or Evolocity enrolled in this year’s Bachelor of Engineering Technology programme, along with friends who hadn’t participated but had heard all about it. And the 2015 open day saw students who had participated in the programmes enquiring about engineering or architectural studies courses.

Familiarising students with what CPIT offers appears to have a big impact – Miranda comments that some of the Christchurch Boys’ students she taught later came to CPIT, “There is quite a following into the system as a result of the projects”.

Where to from here?

For the duration of the three-year position Miranda will continue to strengthen links with local schools, helping to build up the numbers of students with the knowledge and requisite credits for a STEM-related career.

Alongside this, Burnside is actively promoting Technology, hoping students and their parents will realise that these subjects will help them gain the creative and practical skills required in so many STEM-related careers. John comments that many don’t see any the point of doing a more practical subject, “You’ve got kids who want to be engineers but they’re choosing to concentrate on other subjects rather than working in the Technology room where they could test those engineering skills. They don’t see any advantage in getting involved in something practical. It’s really sad for the whole system.” However, he adds, “CPIT’s engagement with schools and its background work to promote STEM subjects and careers will make a difference to both student and parent attitudes.”

Thanks to Miranda and John for their time and advice. If you have any questions or comments, please get in touch:

November 2015