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Senior secondary student participation in STEM: Beyond national statistics


With science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) heralded as pivotal to Australia’s future prosperity, declining participation in Year 12 mathematics and science has attracted nationwide concern. While the national statistics certainly provide clear evidence of declining enrolments and the underrepresentation of females in STEM, we wondered if possible jurisdictional differences had been overlooked. To investigate this issue, we compiled Year 12 enrolment data from 1991 to 2017 in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state. Three complementary analyses were conducted: (1) changes in the Year 12 student cohort, (2) male and female rates of participation in Year 12 STEM courses, and (3) differences between STEM and non-STEM course enrolments. These analyses confirm declining enrolments in digital technologies and mathematics, especially for girls. In contrast, enrolments in almost all NSW science courses have been increasing since 2001, at a rate faster than many non-STEM courses. Declining enrolments in advanced mathematics were less substantial than nationally, and participation in intermediate level mathematics increased in 2017 for the first time since 1991. Despite these promising signs, our analysis also shows that students are selecting less challenging courses, while one in four girls in NSW currently undertakes no mathematics in Year 12. These results indicate the need for continued policy work on gender, mathematics, and digital technologies if key STEM targets are to be met. We argue that understanding key differences between state jurisdictions may be critical to developing interventions with greater impact.

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This research was supported by the estate of Margaret Bowers, a dedicated teacher of mathematics to girls. We wish to acknowledge the support provided in the preparation of this manuscript by Adam Lloyd and Le Hoang Le.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Gore.

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Jaremus, F., Gore, J., Fray, L. et al. Senior secondary student participation in STEM: Beyond national statistics. Math Ed Res J 31, 151–173 (2019).

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  • STEM education
  • Gender
  • Mathematics
  • Participation
  • Secondary education