Experts beam in from all corners of the globe to offer experience and advice. Virtual ‘insectoids’ created from scratch, lurk behind 52 pairs of Oculus Rift headsets, mimicking the behaviour of real live insects. Students choose their own adventure. They design, collaborate, deliberate and learn from their failures along the way. 

There are presently two such schools that exist, and no they’re not in Finland or Sweden, but closer to home than you might think.

The first, sits nestled in Victoria’s Yarra Ranges, and the second, Monash Tech School, lies about 30 minutes south-east of Melbourne’s CBD.

These are the first of 10 new Tech Schools being built across Victoria, as part of the State Government’s broader plan to boost performance in STEM subjects, including targeting a 25 per cent increase in the number of Year 9 students reaching the highest level of achievement in maths ,and 33 per cent more 15-yearolds reaching the highest levels in science by 2025.

“The model governing Tech Schools is a world-first, with students being able to access the latest in technology and thinking as informed by the future needs of growing local industries,” State Minister for Education James Merlino says.

The schools will be scattered around Victoria, set up to service the students at nearby partner schools, which might be from independent, Catholic or government sectors.

Students typically visit their local Tech School for a three-day program, becoming immersed in a new way of learning, and then taking the experience back to their own classroom for followup activities.

To ensure these schools have access to the latest in industry knowledge, a Tech Schools STEM/ Future Industries Advisory Panel has been established.

Panel members include:

• Gill Callister, Secretary, Department of Education and Training (Co-chair)

• Richard Bolt, Secretary, Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (Co-chair)

• Doctor Amanda Caples, Lead Scientist to the Victorian Government

• Australian Industry Group

• Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE)

• Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI)

• CSIRO

• Food Innovation Australia Ltd

• Clean Energy Council

• Design Institute of Australia

• Engineers Australia

• Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VECCI)

• Victorian Skills Commissioner.

Ashley Van Krieken is director of Monash Tech School (MTS), which opened its doors in October 2017.

His working background spans a variety of sectors including economic analysis, manufacturing, minerals and resources.

Previous roles have included time as manager of Strategic Partnerships and Initiatives at John Monash Science School; Executive Director of the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia; and director of Member and Branch Services at the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.

Van Krieken says it was the blending of industry, research and schools that drew him to apply for the Tech School role.

“So coming out of those different industry sectors, particularly in my later roles, a lot of what I was hearing from companies was that they’re getting great technical graduates, so graduates that have got great skills in their particular area of study, but maybe not necessarily the greatest exposure to working in a team or understanding how the modern sector is functioning,” he explains.

“So, I figured that when the Tech School role came up and it was talking about building community- based areas where you’re teaching these global skills, but reflecting the local needs of the industry, it really called out to me as a pretty good policy to follow.”

To set students up for success in the future world of work, Van Krieken says they’ve tried to create an environment that’s as far away from the typical school classroom as possible.

“So the spaces are really open,” he says.

“We have the students working in teams using canvases and other materials, so there’s a degree of direction, but the students are actually given a lot of freedom to really move around within that particular area.

“So a typical day would start, they’ll come in, they’ll come up to the centre, and already they’re starting to go ‘wow, this isn’t school’.

“‘There are screens everywhere, there are tables everywhere, we’ve got access to all of this technology and all of these materials, and ‘wow, we’ve been given a problem and there is some timing we’ve got to keep to, but really we have a lot of control over how we go.’”

Elissa Mckenzie, learning designer at Yarra Ranges Tech School (YRTS), says Design Thinking forms an important focus at their school.

“Design Thinking is very strong in what we’re doing, we’ve been asked to focus very strongly on those critical thinking aspects of the curriculum and that’s very much what we’re trying to embed in students.

“So, we’re trying to make them feel, when they come here, they’re coming to a workplace,” she explains.

In fact, before students can even enter the building, they’re required to apply for a work permit on the YRTS website, covering off OH&S and preparing them for a real-world learning experience.

“We’re going to present them with a real-world problem, we provide them with some pre-learning that explains the background context around that problem and why it’s a problem, how it relates to real industries, and we have filmed a range of industry representatives, that we’ve embedded throughout our pre-learning that will explain how realistic the problem is,” Mckenzie says.

“They will then get a set of criteria that they need to design to, and when they come to us, we will teach them obviously how to use the technology ... There’s always a key learning outcome that’s technology-based, as well as key thinking skills that need to be applied, and our assessment rubrics, they really hone in on a lot of those more 21st century learning skills, which we’ve called ‘transformative skills’.

“So, we’re looking particularly at things like creativity, innovation, problem solving, communication, leadership, teamwork, all of those sorts of things.”

Over at MTS, students in Years 7, 8 and 9 are engaging in a program called ‘Superhumans’, which encourages them to think about different ways technology can be used to help people.

“What we get the students to do is to take on the role of a researcher in a particular area. So, at the moment we divide the teams into heart, eye, kidney and hand, and we give the students a range of scenarios,” Van Krieken says.

“They watch some videos, they do some empathy activities so that they can really understand, ‘what is it like to live with arthritis? What is it like to live with a heart condition? What is it like to live with kidney disease?’”

Those students tasked with researching kidney disease are asked to sit down to a game of Boggle, however every two minutes or so two of them will be tapped on the shoulder and they’ll have to stop playing the game and go and filter a fake blood solution.

“So we’re trying to get them to understand that for someone who is living with some form of kidney problem, that it’s a very disruptive disease,” Van Krieken explains.

A compression belt worn around the chest helps give students an idea of what heart disease might feel like, or they are asked to play a game of Jenga wearing a virtual reality headset programmed to have a slight lag in movement.

“So we get the students to kind of develop an empathy and go ‘well, it’s really hard to do things,’ then they are asked to go away and start thinking about how [they] could make a technology or a solution to help the person out.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be trying to solve the particular disease or problem, it can be looking at, ‘well, how do we simply make that person’s life easier?’”

So far students have developed ideas for portable dialysis machines and nanobots that go through and clean the blood.

“Those looking at arthritis proposed a pressure sensor in-between the joints in the hand. If it detected there wasn’t a lot of fluid or there was a change in pressure, then it would actually inject the fluid in to try and ease the pain.

“So we get the students to think about their solutions, but again, we try not to put too much limitation on them ... then as the students break into teams and they focus on a different technology, again the way the program works is they’re coming back and they’re talking to one another,” Van Krieken says.

“The team that’s looking at the form or the placement or where it’s going to fit in the body, will be going, ‘well we want to do this,’ but the electronics people will be coming back and going, ‘yeah, but if we do that, then we’re going to have to modify this because the heart’s going to get in the way of the sensors talking to one another’ ... so we’re getting students to constantly do those follow-ups.

“And then we get them to present their product on the last day, talk about how it works, talk about what they’re looking for, so it could be funding, it could be customer sales, or it could just be further information.”

Over at YRTS, tech school director Danny Tay and his team are excited about their VR room, boasting 52 Oculus Rift headsets.

Tay says the lessons in this unique classroom span from simple observation, to creation.

“In VR, there’s two ways you use the technology. One is just a pure experiential use where you go into a time, a place and a space, meaning micro or macro-level universe, cellular-level, and you experience around you, [how] the objects and environment behaves.

Then you make ... deductions,” he explains.

“The other takeaway from the VR environment, is you use the environment as part of the design process.

“So you actually design an object, let’s say an insectoid, that behaves with insect mimicry, to execute certain tasks and manoeuvres.

“Traditionally we design in two dimensions, but what I’d like to see is, how we can design in three dimensions and test it.”

And while insectoids might seem a little removed from realworld problems which need solving, Tay and his team are able to link the exercise back to current work in the VR field.

“We’ve got this career corner, so these are our industry experts that we’ve filmed ... related to the particular challenges that [students are] doing.

“So, for example, Trevor Snow, he works with robotics in simulation for medical training ... and he’s also worked with VR surgery training.

“So he talks a lot about that, so that [students] can see who actually works with what they’re doing, so it’s tangible,” Tay says.

While learning for students at these tech schools is a step away from ‘normal’ school life, so too is teaching.

Their teachers take a step back, working with Tech School staff instead as facilitators.

“[They’re] much more in there encouraging students, testing ideas, as opposed to necessarily speaking directly to them and perhaps really guiding them,” Van Krieken says.

And without their teachers standing up the front telling them right from wrong, there are bound to be failures, but Van Krieken says this is all part of the plan.

“Part of the Design Thinking process is about having those failures, not quite getting things right but going back and understanding it,” he says.

Tay takes the same approach to failure at his school, embracing it among his staff as well, as he feels it’s important to “live the vibe you are trying to create”.

“Have fun, [don’t] be afraid to try, fail fast, fail forward.

“And that’s what I said when the Education [Minister] visited our facility, I explained [the need] for them to allow the other Tech Schools and Tech Directors to fail fast and fail forward.

“To live and breathe that thinking and behaviour to the teachers and students, we need to practise it ourselves,” he says.

Amidst the failure, the Tech Schools initiative in Victoria seems poised for success, which is encouraging news in such a vital area.

“Global trends tell us that the jobs of the future will increasingly require science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills, with an estimated 75 per cent of today’s fastest growing occupations related to STEM,” Minister Merlino says.

“That is why it is important to provide as many opportunities as possible for students to develop 21st century skills such as critical thinking, learning how to learn, digital skills and entrepreneurship.”