We must make IC&A careers more attractive

Australia is ideally suited to creating interest and aspiration for our young people in areas of science and technology in general, and instrumentation, control systems and automation (IC&A) in particular.

After all, this country is blessed with myriad opportunities, not the least being those arising from the wealth of our diverse mineral and gas resources and even more importantly, from their allied value.

The question that the Institute of Instrumentation, Control and Automation Australia (IICA) has discussed over the years, is why aren't our primary and secondary schools as well as tertiary institutions, as interested in offering courses and creating interest in these areas of national importance as we think they should be?

We know there are some problems in teaching science and technological subjects really well in schools.

There is also the perception that science based and technological subjects are seen as 'difficult' by some students who have had this attitude unfortunately passed on from primary school and this has a knock on effect when students make their choices for courses for further study. 

At universities, we see a further complication as they have tended to favour courses that have the lowest cost bases per student. This bottom line consideration has become more apparent as universities have had to operate as business organisations, especially when government funding declined to around 50 percent.

Engineering and most sciences clearly felt disadvantaged by definition, as they must have laboratories, equipment and technical staff on top of the teaching academics. Universities also had to factor in student popularity choices in deciding which courses to axe and which to retain. 

So how do IC&A type of areas of study fare in competing in the popularity stakes at most universities?

The answer is, not all that well. Most IC&A courses are add-ons to electrical engineering or other technological courses on offer. While there are a few that do offer standalone IC&A courses, these are the exception, not the rule.

We should also consider the fact that the Australian media, including social media, are not interested in anything scientific or technological unless it refers to 'geeks' or a unique happening like the current Mars landing.

It soon becomes apparent that right from primary school onwards, there is less information, knowledge, and understanding about the value of these critical areas to Australia's future. 

The fact that there are students who choose to enrol for these so called 'hard and difficult' courses is a tribute to their intrinsic love and passion for those subjects and certainly not because of any external encouragement.

I have raised some of the issues and problems in this article, because I believe they need airing and public debate.

In my next article I will outline a sample of what the IICA has and is doing to publicise the opportunities and excitement of IC&A in schools and elsewhere.

[Brett Simpson is President IICA.]