Robots, coding and space travel: Inside Canberra’s new Future Skills Academy

 A group of Canberra high school students have attended a teleconference with NASA. A jet-propulsion engineer helped to answer questions on how he helped build the Mars rovers.

All tips are welcome, says teacher and scientist Paula Taylor, who runs the newly opened Centre for Innovation and Learning in Tuggeranong. Soon students will be working with Formula One (and 3D printers) to build model cars that will cut across the facility in less than a second.

Education Minister Yvette Berry (centre) visits students at the first of the two STEM hubs, based at Caroline Chisholm School.

While propulsion might be covered in the Australian curriculum, the experiences on hand at the $5.7 million centre don’t run by the book.

When the facility opened its doors this year at Caroline Chisholm School, a robot designed by a student cut the ribbon.

It’s one of two specialty STEM centres which will eventually be available to all ACT public schools as part of the ‘Future Skills Academy’ program, based on consultation with industry leaders at the CSIRO, the Australian National University and the University of Canberra.

Education Minister Yvette Berry revealed $5.8 million in next month’s budget will go towards funding a second centre in the north, in a reconfigured space at the University of Canberra Lake Ginninderra school.

Already, 11 schools are flocking to the Tuggeranong centre to work on projects, hear from industry experts and invent, while 35 teacher have access to professional development around the clock.

Amongst it all, Ms Taylor is impossible to miss in her bright pink lab coat. Today she is helping a year 2 class from Fadden Primary design animal habitats. For the diarama, there’s the usual spread of icecream sticks and plasticine but there’s also 3D apps and virtual reality headsets to step into each animal’s home.

This particular class became so excited by their first visit to the centre they even set their own homework.

“It’s all hands-on, self-directed learning,” explains Ms Taylor. “When they come here young, they build those skills, then all we can do is advance them.”

While similiar Tech School programs are being rolled out in Victoria for secondary schools, Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel agreed it was important to ignite the “spark” for STEM early on.

Dr Finkel has thrown his support behind the Canberra centres, after releasing a report earlier this month calling for more industry engagement to turn around Australia’s deteriorating school STEM results.

“What we found is that industry wants to work with schools. They’re not trying to take over, but they want to be part of it,” he said.

The report also emphasised the importance of focussing on real world problems rather than careers and ATAR scores.

“Kids care about the problems they’re going to solve,” Dr Finkel said.

In a shed beside the centre are stacks of inventions,  solutions to questions students set out to answer this semester.

“Sometimes they really surprise me,” Ms Taylor says.

Once both centres were complete, Ms Berry says they would be open for every student, regardless of their socio-economic background.

“This is about showing kids, showing girls in particular, that STEM is something they can enjoy…It’s actually a bit emotional…to see it all happening,” she says.

“One student in Year 10, she said she had never connected with STEM before and she came to a robotics [class] here…She’s now coming back [in her own time] to work on her robot.”

For Dr Finkel himself, it was the US space program and an exploding glass flask that first made him fall in love with STEM in school.

The unfortunate glass was a casualty of a classroom chemistry experiment gone wrong, but it was all “terrifically exciting”, he recalls.

The ACT’s STEM centres are particularly well timed, he says, as Australia’s new space agency lands in the capital this July.

“The [US space program] was very exciting…when I was growing up.

“We lost that for a while but now there’s a lot of excitement across Australia and developed countries…in the potential of conquering space again.”

Students from across Canberra’s south have already been enjoying the first of the two STEM hubs, based at Caroline Chisholm School.