Why we need to teach kids the ABCs of STEM

In a world where robots and AI dominate the media if not yet the real world, Penelope Taylor says giving Australian children the opportunity to learn hands-on robotics and programming skills from an early age is critical if the country wants to set its next generation up for success.

“Personally I’d like every child to do programming and robotics classes from pre-school,” she says. “Some schools do have robotics classes [at a primary level] but those that do only do it for grades five and six. So there are a whole lot of children out there actually missing out.” 

" “We need to help our children be equipped with the skills they need to actually have a job in the future.” - Penelope Taylor

The gap between growing demand in STEM-related roles (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and those with the skills to meet it is well reported - as is the growing risk to businesses from the deficit not being filled before it starts having a financial impact. 

According to the Foundation for Young Australians, roughly 70 per cent of young people who enter the workforce do so in jobs which will soon be radically hit by automation. Importantly, more than half of Australian workers will need to be able to use, configure or build digital systems in the next two to three years.

It’s a similar story offshore. According to the US Department of Commerce, employment in STEM fields grew much faster than employment in non-STEM areas over the last decade – with a gap of more than 20 per cent. By 2024 STEM roles are projected to grow by 8.9 per cent - compared with 6.4 per cent elsewhere.

From a business risk perspective, there’s no clearer danger than the one present in cybersecurity. The skills shortage in the sector raises the risk of significant cyberattacks on businesses until it is addressed. A report from the Australian Cyber Security Growth Network suggests the sector in Australia needs a minimum of 11,000 additional sets of hands over the next decade to provide adequate protection.

With around 60 per cent of current Australian students being trained in jobs which will be radically changed by automation, providing early kids an early introduction into robotics and programming isn’t just a nice-to-have – it’s a must-have idea.

Closing the gap

Taylor is a compliance manager at ANZ and an avid robotics enthusiast. With the bank for more than 11 years, she has worked across a broad range of teams in operational risk and compliance.

“I can see with robotics, automation and changes in industries across the board, we need to help our children be equipped with the skills they need to actually have a job in the future,” she tells bluenotes.

To help address the gap, Taylor has launched of Alphabet Robot, an educational children’s book aimed at providing an introduction into robotics terminology and concepts at an early age. 

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With the impact of changing technologies on the future workforce largely still unknown, Taylor’s efforts in the area are about future-proofing the workforce, she says.

Speaking with bluenotes on video, Taylor says involving adults is just as important as children – particularly those working in industries not exposed to the growing role of robotics.

“We actually don’t really know what sort of jobs will be available and what career pathways won’t be available anymore,” she says.

“What I’m finding is it’s not only kids that want to get their hands dirty but adults are wanting to learn as well.”

The fightback is well-organised. As a part of the Australian Government’s National Innovations and Science Agenda focus on STEM, around $A51 million will be invested to equip young Australians with the tools they need to create and use digital technologies.

Another $A14 million has been put towards the foundation of STEM skills to promote positive learning experiences for children aged three to five years.

Ensuring the next generation of students have the skills needed for the workforce of the future is critical to ensuring Australia’s future prosperity and competitiveness on the international stage.

Watch the video above to find out more. 

Alphabet Robot uses colourful 3D illustrations and relatable, human analogies to teach children the unfamiliar terminology of robotics.  The book likens degrees of freedom to exercising our bodies and binary as robot language.

“A lot of the terms in the book will be new to young kids, and in fact a lot of adults too,” Taylor says.

“By associating these concepts with things kids are already familiar with, we create a fun engaging way for them to learn.”

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Importantly to Taylor, as a robot Alpha voids concerns around the sexism issues well-reported in the STEM space.

According to Professionals Australia, in 2011 only 28 per cent of employed STEM-qualified Australians over 15 are women, compared with 55 per cent in all tertiary qualified fields

In information technology it sits at 25 per cent women, while in engineering it is a mind-boggling 14 per cent. A similar disparity is reflected around the world.

The ABS says of the 2.7 million Australians with higher level STEM qualifications at last count, men accounted for a stunning 81 per cent.

“Alpha [the story’s main character] isn’t a boy robot or a girl robot,” Taylor says. “Sometimes Alpha is playing in a tutu and sometimes playing tennis or at school in the classroom. This helps kids relate with Alpha on a range of levels.”

The future

Taylor is part of the solution – even beyond her book. STEM Robotics Australia, Taylor’s start-up, runs local face-to-face robotics training sessions in the Western Suburbs of Melbourne during school-holiday periods.

She says equal opportunities for children to learn about programming and robotics - along with an apparent lack of practical learning in schools - were part of what inspired the group.

“To ensure our classes are as hands-on as possible they are centred on interactive play,” Taylor says. 

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The sessions have been a hit, with classes reaching full capacity. Taylor says the next logical step for them would be an app, with the illustrations in Alphabet Robot - created with 3D Studio MAX – the perfect fodder for an interactive experience aimed at kids.

“An app would take the learning to a new level enabling children to do things like set up 3D artificial scenarios and develop real algorithms to program virtual robots,” she says. “There are only so many people we can reach in our local community and the class times don’t always suit everybody.”

“By publishing our first book and hopefully one day expanding to an app, we can help many more kids with a solid grounding in robotics.”

Ryan Crocker is a bluenotes contributor. Carina Parisella is bluenotes innovation editor.

Alphabet Robot is available now at Benn’s Books in Bentleigh, Pictures and Pages in Coburg and via eBay or reach out to Penelope to pick one up from Melbourne CBD (Victoria, Australia) and meet the author in person.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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