Researching school-industry STEM partnerships

Has your school been thinking about or working to develop STEM lessons? Are you contemplating building connections with industry? Are you wondering what the hype is all about – and whether it's worth the effort?

Research is being carried out at the University of South Australia to investigate whether using industry partners to provide the focus for students working in STEM fields, helps intrinsically develop their skills.

Australia's Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, among others, believes an effective relationship between STEM, schools, and industry helps forge a link between the cutting-edge world of the workplace and the often isolated learning environment of the classroom (The Australian Industry Group, 2017). This relationship offers the opportunity to build real-world relevance into lessons and enables students to imagine working alongside industry professionals, see the relevance of STEM subjects, and develop the skills required for life after school.

Critical and Creative Thinking Skills

These are the skills that enable us to turn a problem into an opportunity; to know which information is relevant to a current situation; to evaluate the ‘facts' and sort them from the ‘fake news'. Variously called STEM skills, soft skills and 21st Century Skills, they are identified in the Australian Curriculum through the General Capabilities. Labelled as Critical and Creative Thinking Skills, they identify a range of knowledge, skills, behaviours and dispositions which help students to think critically and to solve problems creatively in subjects right across the curriculum (Australian Academy of Science, 2019; Timms et al., 2018).

These skills have been very much in evidence in the last few months, as we have all be challenged to come up with new and innovative ways to combat the issues brought about by COVID-19. Issues such as being physically isolated from work and school colleagues, and even from our family members. Zoom dinners and Pilates lessons, couch choirs, live streamed theatre, and Dawn Service in the driveway for Anzac Day are just a few of the innovative solutions that have emerged to reduce the impact of enforced physical distancing. Personal Protective Equipment such as face masks, being printed on school 3D printers while the students are on holidays may seem like a no-brainer, but it demonstrates the sort of ‘thinking outside the box' that is illustrative of these skills in action. Sometimes thinking creatively comes up with the simplest of solutions.

Difficult times demand new solutions, but how do we arm our students with the skills to be able to harness this ability to think critically about what they see and hear, and to be able to come up with creative solutions to both mundane and challenging problems?

Pilot study findings

The research at UniSA commenced with a pilot study, using industry partners to provide a STEM focus and Problem-Based Learning (PBL) as the teaching model. The pilot was carried out in Adelaide across four primary schools in Term 3 of 2018. Industry partners were Fulton Hogan Constructions, Holdfast Bay Council, Dr Damien Belobrajdic at CSIRO, and Tierra Environment.

Students were challenged to develop innovative and imaginative solutions to current, unsolved, genuine problems requiring them to think critically about the problems and the information they used. Further information on the pilot study, schools and industry partners – including videos on getting started with PBL and what to look for in an industry partner – can be found here (Government of South Australia, 2019).

While the initial purpose for using an industry partner was to provide a context for STEM lessons, the participating teachers were particularly excited by the development of the students' skills. ‘When students are so deeply engaged that they are challenging themselves to think more critically about the subject and then come up with creative solutions, this seems to help them to intrinsically develop the critical and creative thinking skills that we want them to have.' (Christie Evans, Year 7 teacher).

The study used a self-assessment rubric for students, based on the Critical and Creative Thinking continuum in the Australian Curriculum. Data show that student skill levels increased during the 10 weeks of teaching, despite no explicit lessons being provided in skills development. This increase was particularly noticeable with female students. There was also a general increase reported in student motivation and engagement.

‘Because it's a real problem, we're trying to find a real answer to it and I think that's a bit more motivating and kind of drives you to do it like, in a higher quality.' (Tyson, Year 7 student).

But how can we tell what is actually helping the students to develop their skills? PBL, a STEM focus, and an industry partner – surely any of these could be making the difference?

Further research and how to get involved

The follow-up research is designed to identify a number of things: first, whether the effects we saw in the pilot study are reproducible; and, second, whether any effects are due to the industry partner, the problem they provide for the students, or if it's a combination of the two (or neither).

We are encouraged to base our teaching practice on evidenced-based research. This research will provide evidence for us to base decisions on about using industry partners in our teaching.

The research also aims identify or create a tool to measure Critical and Creative Thinking. The Australian Council for Educational Research (Vukovic, 2019) and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority have both developed assessment tasks to measure students' skills. As we come to recognise the value in teaching the skills of thinking critically and creatively to students, we need ways to measure how successful our methods are. Knowing what and how our students learn helps us make evidence-based decisions on effective teaching methods, and how best to support our students.

Once an appropriate tool is identified for measuring Critical and Creative Thinking, research will be carried out in primary schools in and around Adelaide, South Australia to determine the level of the effect of industry partnerships on the development of student skills. The study will focus on Year 5 students. Participating teachers will be provided with training and ongoing support in PBL and provided with an industry partner or project problem. It is anticipated the projects and data collection will run during Terms 2 and 3 next year.

Industry partnerships can be challenging to set up and maintain for teachers. Not everyone has connections to industry they can easily lean on, to provide them with relevant problems. Not all problems can be linked with the curriculum for the required year level, and not everyone in industry is interested in working with primary school students.

But if involving industry really is having a positive effect on student's skill development, it could be worth supporting more teachers to develop partnerships. If the use of industry partnerships is found to have a positive effect on the level of skills demonstrated by students, industry partnerships with schools may become an essential part of a teacher's toolkit. If not, we could rightly ask – What's the hype?

Readers interested in learning more about, or being engaged in, this research are invited to email


Australian Academy of Science. (2019). Women in STEM decadal plan. Retrieved from Australia:

Government of South Australia. (Department for Education). (2019). Problem-based Learning with Industry Partners: The what, the why and the how - Film series.

The Australian Industry Group. (2017). Strengthening School-Industry STEM Skills Partnerships. Melbourne, Australia: Office of the Chief Scientist.

Timms, M. J., Moyle, K., Weldon, P. R., & Mitchell, P. (2018). Challenges in STEM learning in Australian schools: Literature and policy review. Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

Vukovic, R. (2019, October 16). The Research Files Episode 55: Assessing the General Capabilities. Teacher magazine.

Thinking about your own school context, how have you worked towards increasing the value of your STEM education? Have you managed to build real-world relevance into lessons? What opportunities exist in your local community to partner with industry professionals?

How do you assess your students’ Critical and Creative Thinking skills? Is student progress in these skills reported to parents?