New Zealand: Creating a nation of curious minds
Five years ago, the New Zealand Government set out a ten-year goal for better engagement between science, technology and society. Helen Sillars, Manager for Specialised Investments, explains why the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment invests in STEM
In New Zealand, science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills are highly valued and sought after across the economy: 90 per cent of New Zealanders see science and technology as important areas to study, which increase job prospects and potential earnings. Indeed, STEM skills are applied in a wide range of industries and more broadly in life. Some growing industries that make extensive use of STEM skills include health (for example, med tech, pharmaceuticals), food tech (for example, innovative product development and manufacturing), and ICT (for example, agritech, software and services).
In 2017, the tech sector created 2,830 new jobs, which is a 3 per cent increase since 2016. These new jobs were evenly split across the sector, from ICT to high tech manufacturing. We are, however currently experiencing shortages of employees with STEM skills in the health, engineering and IT industries. Demand for these skills will continue to increase as the Government puts more investment into these areas in order to create a strong and prosperous economy with adaptable and engaged people.
A NATION OF CURIOUS MINDS
New Zealanders want to hear about new scientific and technological breakthroughs, especially when it stems from work done in our own backyard. This can’t happen if we aren’t making sure that our people are equipped with the skills. Five years ago, in 2014, the Government set out a ten-year goal for better engagement between science, technology and society in all sectors of New Zealand society, and developed A Nation of Curious Minds. The initiative covers three action areas that focus on enhancing the role of education, public engagement with science and technology, and encouraging science sector engagement with the public. Essentially, the aims are to:
Hide and seek. Credit: Chris Williams
WHEN AND WHY WAS CURIOUS MINDS SET UP?
Curious Minds came to life in 2014 through the development of the National Science Challenges, which were set up to address New Zealand’s most pressing health and environmental issues, as well as advance our economy through innovation. The panel involved in setting up these challenges recommended a “Science in Society leadership challenge”, which they felt was critical to the success of all the other challenges. Curious Minds was borne out of this challenge encompassing several different initiatives, the Participatory Science Platform (PSP) being one of them.
IS CURIOUS MINDS AIMED AT ANY GROUP IN PARTICULAR, FOR EXAMPLE, TEACHERS, CHILDREN, RESEARCHERS?
The goal of Curious Minds is to increase the science and technology capability within New Zealand society. While this sounds broad there are some key target groups that have been identified to provide the biggest impact. These are:
- Students, teachers and the compulsory learning sector
- Parents, whānau (extended families) and communities
- Science sector, including technology
- Business, especially science and technology-led businesses
- The public sector and government
- Communicators of science
CURIOUS MINDS AIMS TO ENCOURAGE AND SUPPORT ALL NEW ZEALANDERS TO “ASK GOOD QUESTIONS, SOLVE LOCAL PROBLEMS AND UNCOVER INNOVATIVE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY SOLUTIONS FOR A BRIGHTER FUTURE”. CAN YOU GIVE US SOME EXAMPLES OF “GOOD QUESTIONS”?
The exciting thing about Curious Minds is that it encourages people from all walks of life to ask all kinds of questions. Because of this we get a diverse range of topics investigated. For example:
- Ngāti Tawhirikura hapū (a Māori kinship group or tribe in Taranaki) worked with our local museum to investigate whether the Motunui Epa (200-year-old carved panels) were created with stone or wooden tools.
- Students from two New Plymouth High Schools worked with Massey University to ask questions around how interference is impacting the wireless connectivity of rural Taranaki.
- Woodleigh School students asked if they could create natural alternatives to repelling mosquitos in their outdoor classroom.
- Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Mutunga wanted to learn more about the distribution of frogs in North Taranaki and what this distribution indicated in terms of eco-system health.
• Increase the number of science and technology-competent learners, who choose STEM-related career pathways or further study; • improve the public’s understanding and engagement with science and technology; and • Create a more skilled workforce, using science and technology to meet New Zealand’s needs.
The initiative identified that a major hurdle for encouraging STEM learning in schools is teacher confidence. The Curious Minds Participatory Science Platform works in several ways to increase teacher confidence and enable teachers to support students’ engagement with STEM subjects. The platform has also enabled the science sector to build their relationship with schools and communities by providing funding to facilitate scientists, researchers and communities working together. The funding gives communities and students resourcing to work with researchers to develop locally relevant research questions, “be the scientist” and carry out investigations themselves, with researchers alongside.
OFF TO A GOOD START
Five years after the launch of this strategy, we have a lot of evidence and survey results from projects that suggest that we’re off to a good start. This includes teachers reporting greater confidence in delivering science. The Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund has funded at least one project in every part of the country. These are targeting a range of ages, types of schools, and cover STEM skills and different delivery ideas.
When we released A Nation of Curious Minds, new technologies and ways of working were increasingly becoming embedded into our everyday lives, and continue to do so. We believed, and still do, that it is important that no one in society is left behind.
INNOVATION IN STEM
Some of life’s most difficult questions can be answered by people who have STEM skills. Climate change, health challenges and technology advancements are just the starting point of why science, technology, engineering and maths are important to understand. Essentially, building STEM skills, and engaging with STEM will equip people to make well-informed decisions about how to address difficult questions and challenges.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s aim is to grow New Zealand for All. This means that we support the Government to make sure that New Zealand has prosperous and adaptable sectors, people and regions; our people are engaged in safe and fulfilling work; our consumers and businesses are informed and confident; and, finally, our value is sustainably derived and our business environment is dynamic, encouraging innovation and international connections.
EDUCATIONAL AND CAREER RESOURCES
For more information on the MBIE’s Curious Minds initiative, read: How to encourage citizens to ask good questions and solve big problems.
The New Zealand Government has also introduced the following educational and career STEM resources:
- The Science Learning Hub is part of the Curious Minds suite of projects and is widely used across New Zealand schools: https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/
- The Ministry of Education recently launched new resources on Progress and Achievement in science for New Zealand schools: http://scienceonline.tki.org.nz/Progress-and-Achievement-in-Science.