Australian of the Year choice highlights the need to talk about STEM education

The choice of a distinguished scientist as the Australian of the Year for the second year in succession has highlighted the major contribution people versed in science and technology make to our society every day.

Michelle Simmons, a quantum physicist and University of NSW professor, picked up the mantle laid down by 2017 Australian of the Year, biomedical scientist, Professor Alan Mackay-Sim.

The awards saw another teacher, albeit one with his feet firmly planted in the secondary school education space, honoured for his work in encouraging young people to embrace STEM subjects from an early age.

Eddie Woo, a maths teacher at Cherrybrook Technology High, was named Local Hero in the Australian of the Year awards for his "Woo-tube" videos on maths and science related subjects.

STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are, on the one hand some of the most challenging, and, on the other, the most important, areas of study that a student can undertake.

The world has been reshaped time and time again by scientists, technicians, engineers and mathematicians over the last 150 years.


People such as Professor Simmons, Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, Mr Woo and the Senior Citizen of the Year, ANU scientist, Dr Graham Farquhar, are all torchbearers in areas of study that have been pioneered by some of the greatest minds that have ever lived.

If they have, to paraphrase the words of Sir Isaac Newton, seen further than those who have gone before, it is because they have stood on the shoulders of giants.

Professor Simmons, who is leading the development of a "quantum computer" that should have the capacity to solve problems it would take humans thousands of years to work out on their own in minutes, used her acceptance speech to urge young people, particularly girls, to challenge themselves by studying technical and scientific subjects.

This is a message that needs to be spread far and wide given recent reports Australian schools and universities are sliding backwards on international rankings in these areas.

A Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study in 2016 found Australia had slipped from 18th to 28th out of 49 countries in year 4 mathematics proficiency.

The decline was almost as bad for year 8 maths and science, with Australia slipping from 12th place to 17th place in both subjects.

It is, in many ways, ironic that while Professor Simmons has made a brilliant contribution to the intellectual strength of this nation, she is not a product of the Australian education system.

The 50-year-old was born in London, went to English schools and spent much of her academic career working for British universities before moving to Australia to take up a post at the University of NSW in 1999.

While there is no doubt her brilliance would have ensured she would have flourished in almost any academic environment, Professor Simmons's success raises the question of whether or not we are doing enough to encourage young Australians with similar talents to make full use of them.

Her selection as Australian of the Year proves we regard these issues as important.

The real issue is whether or not we are going to act on that belief.