When Dr Chris Chalmers started a project to provide additional STEM learning opportunities for schools she often had to convince people of the benefits – fast forward five years to today and it's a completely different story.
'It's gone crazy from  to now. Especially this year, it's really taken off with the new Technologies Curriculum coming through. At the beginning, from the teachers, I got a lot of "why are we doing this?" and now it's "why can't we do this!" ... so it's great that we've got this interest building.'
The academic, who delivered a keynote to the Excellence in Professional Practice Conference today, is leader of Robotics@QUT – a Queensland University of Technology Outreach Program.
'It specifically low SES schools,' she tells Teacher. 'There are three things we do with them: we provide resources for them, we provide support for teachers as well as free professional development workshops, and there are also opportunities for our pre-service teachers to go out into the schools as well.'
Schools involved in the program (and there are around 50 this year) get robotics loan kits to support curriculum activities and build staff capacity. Chalmers says the emphasis is on student engagement – to get them engaged with robotics and STEM in particular.
'What I identified early was that robotics is something that really engages kids and we can actually get a number of different [curriculum] areas into that. So, they can do their maths and science with these hands-on activities.
'We did start with a Grade 8 to 12 focus but what we're finding now, especially this year, is that we're actually going right down into primary school, from Grade 2, because more and more teachers are wanting to adopt this into their classroom. We're mainly using LEGO kits at the moment because we find that a lot of schools are familiar with them ... the kids hear the word LEGO and parents hear the word and they get engaged.'
The university also hosts fun days where parents are invited to visit the campus so the students can teach them what they've been learning.
Activities in class have included coding, sequencing and computational thinking. The professional development workshops to build teacher capacity are all free. And pre-service students at QUT are an important part of the process, providing additional support to classroom practitioners delivering the activities.
Chalmers says the approach taken in class depends on the schools and teachers involved. 'When we first started up it usually was one teacher per school and they were the ones that were keen to get involved and do it; it was more an after school or lunchtime club. What we're finding from last year and this year in particular, it's more in the curriculum and there are more teachers involved in the school.
'So, Principals for our workshops this year will send three or four teachers from their school and they'll actually be planning that to go into the classroom – which is what I'd love to have seen right from the beginning, but it was just [convincing people]. ... Now I don't need to, they understand completely and that's great.'
Dr Chris Chalmers is one of the academics involved in a research project looking at the impact of NAO robots, involving South Australian schools. To find out more about that project, click on the link. Plus, stay tuned for future articles, podcasts and videos featuring EPPC 2016 presenters.
The theme of ACER's Research Conference 2016 is Improving STEM Learning: What will it take? The conference takes place from 7-9 August at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre. To register, visit www.acer.edu.au/rc
How are you working to increase student engagement in STEM?
Are you providing opportunities for students to share what they're learning with parents?