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Principals’ perceptions of the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)

Vesife Hatisaru, Lecturer in Mathematics Education at Edith Cowan University

Within the ‘Principals as STEM Leaders – Building the Evidence Base for Improved STEM Learning’ project, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment, and led by the University of Tasmania, we investigated the perceptions of a sample of 21 principals about the teaching and learning of STEM. 

The data were collected by using the Draw a STEM Learning Environment (D-STEM) instrument – a multimodal research instrument combining drawing and text (Hatisaru et al., 2020, pp. 23–4). The first page of D-STEM provides a rectangular area in which participants are asked to draw: Think about the teachers of STEM and kinds of things they do. Draw a STEM learning environment. The second page provides an open-ended item which asks participants to explain their drawings (figures 1 and 2 capture example responses).

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What are observed in participants’ D-STEM responses? 

Integration is key 

Eleven participants made references in their D-STEM responses to some level of integration of content and skills from individual STEM subjects. Eight of them referred to learning activities that could require combining knowledge and skills from two or more areas such as Robotics, Coding, Programming or Recycling. There was also the potential for extensive integration in three other responses as one participant (Participant 5) explained:  

‘The teacher demonstrates how to do a 3D print of the Eiffel Tower. One student uses a drone to film this and project on a screen … A girl has programmed a new robot.’ 

Make it real 

For ten participants, it was evident that the learning should be useful for students in their lives beyond the school gate. One participant (Participant 14) described how important it is to appeal to students’ curiosity by getting them stuck into learning about what makes things work:  

‘There is a makerspace with real tools as well as other materials to build prototypes. There is a breaker space where students can pull apart old computers, bikes, etc. to learn how things work and then repurpose these parts.’

One participant (Participant 20) highlighted the usefulness of ‘a kitchen/garden program’ which is ideal for linking learning through STEM activities enacted through gardening or cooking. For Participant 13, the power of drawing upon young people’s personal experience is immense:  

‘The environment features significantly including the outdoors. Construction, cooking, other project-based activities, real-life contexts ensure STEM learning is applied to the child’s world.’ 

Get them working together  

A context in which students are interacting and working together to find solutions to problems or running investigations was evident in the drawings and descriptions of almost all participants. Three responses included more specific reference to the collaborative nature of STEM – students working in teams, with each member taking on specific roles and responsibilities. As Participant 5 described:  

‘[Students] are all working separately on aspects of one topic/project (such as sustainability) to add to the body of knowledge & learning.’ 

Get the community and industry involved  

Sometimes students were represented outside the classroom working on wicked problems relevant to the world in which they live and beyond into outer space! (see for example Participant 8 in figure 2). The participant’s supporting text highlights their perspective on a STEM learning environment as opening students’ minds beyond their school gate. They aim to ‘make it real’, getting students to work together on important issues for the community in an integrated way.  

Think about how STEM is best taught and learned  

Most of the participants represented contexts in which science inquiry or problem-based learning are implemented. In most responses, both the teacher and students are described as actively engaging in STEM activities. Students are depicted investigating solutions to tasks through designing, testing and revising their ideas, as Participant 3 described: 

‘21st-century skills: resilience, asks questions, curious, being self-aware, collaborative. Inductive learning: instead of here is the knowledge, now go practice it. Here are some objects, experience, [collect] data – what knowledge can we gain from it?’ 

Why is the D-STEM research significant?  

The provision of effective leadership in STEM education is essential to support teachers to consider approaches to STEM and to carry them out effectively. Principals’ perceptions of STEM teaching and learning are significant as they play key roles in convincing the school community that STEM education is important. 

The development and trial of the D-STEM instrument itself is significant. The instrument provides evidence in principals’ understanding of aspects of effective STEM learning environments including STEM integration, the use of realistic problems, and engaging the community and industry engagement (Hatisaru et al., 2020, p. 25). It initiates rich discussions on the breadth and quality of STEM learning environments, and provides a language by which what counts as STEM education can be explicitly communicated. 


Hatisaru, V., Fraser, S., & Beswick, K. (2020). ‘My picture is about opening up students’ minds beyond our school gate!’ School principals’ perceptions of STEM learning environments. Journal of Research in STEM Education, 6(1), 18–38.