Creating a pathway for careers in space

STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) conversations dominate education, political and industry agendas. How to encourage students to engage at secondary levels? How to address issues of inequity within STEM? How to prepare students for industry careers requiring STEM skill sets? And, how to create pathways to employment through collaboration with industry?

A recent initiative between the South Australian Department for Education, the South Australian Space Industry Centre, Flinders University and other SA universities, and space sector enterprises created just such a pathway inviting students, ‘To boldly go where no other Australian secondary student has gone before…’

Numerous reports in Australia and internationally show that although STEM skills are a substantial driver of economic growth, the sector faces skills shortages. Answering the question as to why, is a multi-layered exercise but the South Australian collaboration between education and industry supplies some of the answers.

‘Secondary school students exploring careers in the space industry: A South Australian work experience program’ by Associate Professor David Curtis of Flinders University, Dr Sarah Baker and Sandra Moran of the South Australian Department for Education and Darin Lovett of the South Australian Space Industry Centre, documents the design, implementation, and outcomes of a work experience program creating pathways to working into the space industry.

“Research shows that of the occupations projected to experience the greatest growth in demand to 2024, STEM occupations – specifically in engineering and ICT – account for six of the top 20, all of which have expected demand growth of more than 20% on current employment levels”, says Associate Professor Curtis.

“While projected demand for science graduates is modest (3% to 15% growth), defence industries (to which the space sector is closely aligned) have continued to recruit despite the COVID pandemic. Thus, there appears to be an emerging shortage of STEM-skilled workers in Australia, especially for several fields of engineering and for ICT professionals, both of which are central to growth in the space sector.”

The Australian Space Agency (2019) has set a goal to create 20,000 new jobs by 2030 and requires individuals with highly developed STEM skills in engineering, software development, communications, and data analysis to meet this goal.

The Space Industry Work Experience program (SIWE) was established, as part of the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) within the Department for Education in South Australia, in collaboration with the South Australian Space Industry Centre (SASIC), to assist meeting future employment goals.

According to Associate Professor Curtis, “The program was designed to enable students to gain first-hand experience of, and insights into, the space industry in South Australia, to find out about the types of jobs that are available in the space industry, gain relevant work experience and/or skills, and align school studies and subject selection with career aspirations.”

Dr Baker says, “It’s all about increasing the pool of STEM educated students and informing Australia’s youth about employment opportunities and pathways into the space industry.”

Since the inaugural SIWE program shortlisted 31 secondary students, 48 students (42% female) from 31 SA schools have been placed – all of whom had strong interests in careers in STEM and Space.

Darin Lovett explains, “Each host site developed their own program for the placement and the only requirement was that students have a ‘final presentation’ which could be multimodal (e.g., a written report and a video presentation).”

“Student placements were designed to be immersive, but the extent of this varied between what might be described as work shadowing through to structured and challenging project work. The most challenging and structured placements were highly valued by students and were more effective for informing an academic stream of student participants about the range of space industry careers currently available”.

According to Sandra Moran, “Post-placement interviews were held with the students to determine the trigger for their interest in space. We found most had become interested from a young age, often by the time they were eight years-old”.

Other triggers included reading books about space, watching videos about space or as a result of lessons at school. Some students had a specific interest in space for example one student commented, “I remember reading a book about the solar system in Year 1 at school. Later I watched a video presented by Brian Cox.”

The researchers found the program was in-demand among students and well-received by participating industry partners, all of whom indicated an intention to continue their involvement in the program.

“The SIWE can be considered as a successful venture in generating school, higher education and industry partnerships in the space sector. The consensus of the student participants was that it was challenging and rewarding”.

Secondary school students exploring careers in the space industry: A South Australian work experience program by Baker, S.J., Moran, S., Lovett, D. and Curtis, D.D is published in the journal Issues in Educational Research.

This release was produced by the Media Centre for Education Research Australia.

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