What we’ve learnt: developing secondary-tertiary programmes

Unitec programme.

We asked Secondary-Tertiary Partnership Project (STPP) project managers about the challenges of developing programmes for school students and the consequent changes they’ve made.

Delivering programmes to prepare and pathway students

The six STPP teams – Otago Polytechnic, Ara, WITT, Wintec, Unitec and NorthTec –  are tasked with delivering programmes to prepare and pathway students to enrol in and successfully complete tertiary engineering study.

Common challenges in reaching out to schools and students

The teams face similar challenges. These include: building relationships with local schools; attracting sufficient numbers of students; sustaining student interest over long-term courses; and reaching female, Māori and Pasifika students.

Building relationships with teachers and careers advisors

Building a new, or extending an existing relationship, with a school is hard. The STPP teams often find it easier to develop a link with one teacher or careers advisor, then use that champion to grow their relationship with the school.

Mirko Wojnowski from NorthTec, for example, followed up potential connections he heard about through education or social networks. This approach led to a relationship with a local kura kaupapa Māori which hopefully will increase the number of Māori students attending events.

Timing events and courses to suit school calendars

Timing of events and courses is a major issue. Teams find it difficult getting sufficient numbers of students if an event hasn’t previously been noted in school calendars.  On some occasions a teacher is keen to participate but school sports tournaments or the like take precedence.

To overcome this, NorthTec sent its 2018 plan to schools in November, so teachers would know what was available well in advance of the event.

Events and courses need to be held earlier in the year

Some schools are reluctant to allow students to attend outside activities in Terms 3 to 4, due to exam study. Others permit it, but students themselves feel under pressure to study.

WITT’s engineering taster block aimed at girls was very successful but involved fewer students than hoped. “Term 3 clashed with school mock exams.” notes manager Kyle Hall. “The timing was also problematic because senior students make their option choices by the end of Term 2.” The WITT team has planned all 2018 senior courses for early Term 2.

All the teams find that making the effort to know their local schools’ timetables and subject needs is valuable.

Engaging with teachers

Engaging teachers is vital for the initiatives to be successful – and it’s about collaboration.

The WITT team met with teachers and careers advisors at the end of 2017 to decide programme content. “A critical thing was to review the plan together,” says Kyle, “looking at what worked well and what didn’t.”

Teachers involved in Unitec’s Year 12 Engineering course gained a better understanding of engineering careers and how what they teach is applied in engineering.  Robyn Gandell says the industry visits gave teachers a much better idea of the opportunities in engineering. “Teachers were involved in co-teaching but wanted more opportunities to work with Unitec lecturers and industry.”

During 2017, NorthTec organised industry visits specifically for teachers. “The field trips went really well,” says Mirko, “everyone got excited about seeing the skills they teach being used in industry.

Challenges in delivering long-term courses

While long-term courses (two to four terms) allow for lots of activities and learning, there are also challenges. Some students are reluctant to commit that amount of time, and schools may be wary due to perceptions around funding issues – that they risk losing teacher funding if a whole class is enrolled in a course, which is not necessarily the case.

It can also be difficult to sustain student interest over a long period, especially in courses where they don’t see any obvious ‘reward’, such as NCEA credits.

An option is to offer credit against first year courses at the ITP.

Block courses

In response, some teams developed block courses and others are looking to this model for 2018. Robyn says the Unitec three-term course went very well, but some students did drop out by Term 3 – partly due to an increased focus on preparing for external exams. It was decided that block courses would work better to maintain student interest and make it easier for teachers to be involved in planning and delivering lessons.

Adding NCEA credits to courses

WITT, Wintec and Ara offered NCEA standards with their long-term courses, something that other teams are considering for this year. Robyn says that while students participating in Unitec’s course got a lot out of it, they put in a lot of time for no tangible reward. Unitec’s plan for 2018 is to develop a Level 3 course which could involve Maths, Physics or Technological Literacy NCEA standards. 

Increasing focus on achievement standards

While offering NCEA standards may lead to increased enrolments, Ara has found that students generally prefer achievement standards over unit standards. “One of our learnings is that unit standards are less desirable,” Pete Wilson says, “so we’re looking to include more achievement standards this year.”

Selecting the appropriate students to attend events or courses

Reaching students who may go on to enrol in Level 6 or 7 engineering qualification can also be challenging due to selection processes. Where students self-select or are shoulder tapped by teachers, it is often those already planning to study engineering at university and who are less likely to change direction.

The STPP initiative is about showing engineering as an option for those currently contemplating another career, as well as students who don’t yet know what they’d like to do.

It can also be problematic when teachers choose which students will attend, says Mirko, as, sometimes it’s those who aren’t particularly interested in engineering. “We will now give selection criteria to the schools – particularly for industry visits where we’re limited to small numbers.”

Moving away from specific training to wider experiences

“Delivering student courses involves a significant investment of time and energy,” says Pete, “and we were struggling to get numbers in the Electrotechnology courses.” The team is looking to deliver more block courses – “It’s better to give students a shorter, high quality experience.”

Ara also plans to move away from Electrotechnology to cover more types of engineering, to give students experience in and appreciation of more potential career areas.

Students had a better idea of what engineering is after our industry visits

Robyn says that a key finding was the importance of making links with industry. “Students had a better idea of what engineering is after our industry visits and realised that they had to continue with Maths and Physics at a higher level.”

Showing girls how they can fit their interests into an engineering career

All the teams are committed to increasing the numbers of female, Māori and Pasifika students in their programmes. Following a successful block course last year, Otago Polytechnic is focusing on girls in particular in 2018. “We’re trying to normalise the term ‘engineering’,” says John Findlay, “looking at how Maths, Science and Technology subjects are applied in engineering, and showing girls how they can fit their interests into an engineering career.

Working with Māori staff to reach students

Kyle says the WITT team’s project plan includes a focus on Māori students and engaging with iwi, something that’s hard to do in practice. “Last year, it didn’t really happen because it’s not that easy and we were so busy. It’s something we need to do, but this year we’ll ask WITT staff who coordinate this area to help out; for example, asking them to find us three students from a particular school.”

The Ara experience reflects this learning. “It’s about finding the right person to go to schools with,” says Pete. He is visiting local kura kaupapa this year with a member of the Ara engagement team who, as tangata whenua, is using existing contacts to engage teachers. “We made a good team.”

Our thanks to Pete, Kyle, John, Robyn and Mirko for their time and advice. If you have any queries please contact

March 2018