Make it real : A child’s journey with STEM


Make it real : A child’s journey with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects should begin before they start school.

BY Cyndi Tebbel

If Sarah Chapman had her way, children would be introduced to STEM concepts from birth and continue learning about them for at least the next 20 years.

When parents present science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts using everyday language and activities, children see the subjects as familiar and less abstract. “They become part of the everyday, promoting interest and extension,” says Chapman, who heads the science department at Townsville State High School.

Chapman saw a nascent form of that approach in Finland in 2016 during a visit as part of a global fellowship program, researching best practice in engaging young people in STEM subjects. The Barbara Cail STEM Fellowship was funded by the federal government in partnership with the Chief Executive Women.

Never say never

Chapman’s enthusiasm for teaching belies her personal history. As the daughter of a primary school principal in country Queensland, she vowed to never enter the profession.

She enjoyed learning though and studied science before completing her honours degree in brain injury research. While working in science and technology event management and communication, Chapman realised she had a gift for explaining things.

She completed her practical teaching at Townsville State High and was offered a job. That was in 2004, when only 15 per cent of the school’s final year students chose a science-related course. Now that figure is 74 per cent. Chapman credits the improvement to a team passionate about teaching science and years forging connections with local primary schools and STEM industries, working with teachers to boost their confidence in teaching STEM.

She’s enthusiastic about promoting STEM engagement “in whatever capacity or platform I can”. That includes establishing the Townsville STEM Hub in 2014, bringing together education, business, industry, government and research organisations to demonstrate the benefits of STEM to the broader community.

Diamonds in the rough

Chapman says her most rewarding moments are those in the classroom. She describes students as “diamonds in the rough”. She says observing them get excited about what they’re learning “is a true privilege”.

“One of my former students recently started first-year medicine,” says Chapman. “I still remember her dissecting a rat in Year 9 and looking at me at the end of the lesson saying ‘This is what I want to do. I want to become a doctor’.”

Another student, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boy, was troubled by the number of people in his family with diabetes. Chapman arranged for him to attend a STEM camp and explore a range of STEM projects about natural medicine. He’s now in his second year at university studying science and hoping to go into medical research.

“Things like that are priceless to me. If I influence one student that will save or influence the lives of many, that’s the most important thing about being a teacher,” says Chapman.