Bridging Gaps: Getting to the STEM career you want

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Not getting the correct grades doesn’t have to be a barrier for students. This article case studies three students with alternative paths to their ultimate career.

This resource is best suited to senior science students or other students with an interest in STEM pathways, particularly if they’ve recently not met the prerequisite for their first choice university courses.

Word count: 2000

So you’ve missed out on getting into that uni course you had your heart set on. Or maybe you’ve changed your mind about what you want to study and don’t have the right prerequisites. Don’t panic! Here are some examples of people who have soared after setbacks.

Karlie Noon may be the most unlikely person ever to gain a double degree in maths and physics. She barely went to school as she was growing up in the NSW country town of Tamworth, and didn’t even know what science was back then.

“You only really see science when you get to high school,” Karlie explains, “and I didn’t really go to high school.” But in September last year, Karlie became the first Indigenous person in NSW to graduate with a Bachelor of Science (Physics) and a Bachelor of Mathematics. (She’s also the first member of her family to complete a university degree.) She’s now planning postgraduate study in astrophysics.

Despite getting hardly any science education at high school, Karlie Noon completed degrees in maths and physics and now plans postgraduate study in astrophysics. Credit: University of Newcastle.

Like so many of today’s uni students, Karlie’s pathway to a degree wasn’t the dream run of choosing what she wanted to do for the rest of her life in year 10, then completing prerequisite subjects and getting the necessary ATAR. “I’m a big believer that there are a lot of pathways,” Karlie says. “People say that getting a good ATAR is the easiest way – I’m not entirely convinced of that.”

“I got a horrible ATAR, but I could still do what I wanted to do.”

As “horrible” as Karlie says her ATAR was, it was good enough for her to get her foot in the door at the University of Newcastle (UON) in 2008 and begin a Bachelor of Arts. “I didn’t know what else to do to be honest,” she says. “I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I liked learning and I thought I’d give it a go. It was a bit of a shrug moment.”

Making the switch

So, how did someone with hardly any science in high school end up on a pathway to a double degree in two of the most hard-core science disciplines?

Karlie was introduced to advanced physics concepts when one of her uni arts classes discussed philosophy and the scientific evidence for the existence of God. “I wrote an essay on the ‘multiverse’ and the different possibilities that come with that,” she says. Suddenly, she was hooked on physics and decided to transfer over to maths and physics degrees.

Karlie recalls that while the process of transferring was easy, it was then extremely difficult to catch up on all the background information she lacked through her poor schooling.

“For my first year, I pretty much failed every subject,” she admits. “I spent a lot of time using programs like MathsOnline; basically I taught myself year 11 and year 12 advanced maths.”

Karlie also spent hours studying physics online, and gradually things started coming together. “There’s so much available online,” she says. “For example, MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the United States] has a full introduction to biology course for free. It’s free to everyone!

“I knew it was going to be really hard, and I had to persevere through it.”

Despite her eventual success, Karlie’s advice to other high school students is to try to avoid her path if possible. “If you are remotely interested in anything to do with maths, science or engineering at university, definitely choose advanced maths at school,” she advises. “It can be so beneficial to you if you go to uni and, say, do civil engineering. It can be your lifesaver.”

Lots of options

There are so many different ways to get into a degree now, says Associate Professor Seamus Fagan, Director of the Centre for English Language and Foundation Studies at UON.

“The number one piece of advice would be if you’re looking to do a STEM degree, definitely choose the assumed and recommended subjects listed for the degree on the website, because that will ensure you are as prepared as you possibly could be,” he advises. “But depending on the degree and the approach, there are many different ways to get into a course. Regardless of how well you go, there is always another option.”

Last year almost 1000 students enrolled in UON’s Newstep, a free, year-long study program designed for students aged 18–20, who didn’t get the ATAR they needed to start a degree.

Prof Fagan says it’s particularly useful for those wanting to do STEM degrees because it includes physics, chemistry and mathematics. Older students can do an intensive six-month or part-time version of a similar course, and students who pass then gain entry into the degrees they want.

Unlike swapping between degrees, the Newstep program won’t result in any subject credits. But it can make the transition to university life so much easier. “Last year about 20% of our undergraduate students came from one of those enabling programs, or foundation programs as we call them,” Prof Fagan says.

He explains that in addition to these courses, UON also offers 19 different intensive 3–5-day refreshers on subjects such as maths and science.

But those courses are more suited to someone who has had a gap year and wants a quick reboot before starting uni, rather than someone trying to learn all of year 11 and 12 in one quick hit. “It’s not designed to replace doing it in year 11 and 12, but it will assist in bridging the gap of time.” Prof Fagan says.

The university also offers three free online MOOCS to anyone, on maths, chemistry and life sciences, as well as a general academic skills course. See more on UON bridging and refresher courses.

A second chance

Other institutions offer bridging courses that will entitle students to gain entry into a STEM course if they haven’t fulfilled school subject prerequisites.

For example, many science and health science degrees at James Cook University (JCU), based in North Queensland, require chemistry and advanced maths. Bridging courses can be completed before starting university to fulfil these requirements if a student didn’t do those subjects at school.

The maths course can be completed during a semester: as 39 hours of lectures and 13 hours of prac; as an intensive three-week program (four hours a day for three weeks); or even externally as 26 hours of online lectures and 13 hours of online pracs.

JCU’s chemistry bridging course can also be done as an intensive block during summer. Alternatively, the 39 hours of lectures, 13 hours of tutorials and 21 hours of pracs can be spread across a semester.

Daniel Larsen needed to complete bridging courses in English and maths when he decided to study engineering and science (physics) degrees at JCU. “I basically flunked year 12,” he admits.

Daniel became a licensed plumber for a few years, but the idea of doing research in robotics really appealed, so he researched alternate pathways into university.

Two years ago JCU began offering a new, one-year Diploma of Higher Education that includes maths, English, science and engineering subjects, allowing someone like Daniel not just to meet course prerequisites, but complete some subjects ahead of starting an engineering degree.

“I figured it would be a good stepping stone,” Daniel says. “It’s a really good way to teach you how to study. It teaches you to get into the pattern of learning.”

Beyond an ATAR

Some institutions have moved right away from the concept of using only an entry mark to get into a degree, preferring multiple techniques to help identify a particular type of student.

The Joint Medical Program at the University of Newcastle and University of New England is famous for pioneering a move away from a pure academic-based entry requirement, to one based on a range of factors, including personality, communication skills and the ability to solve problems.

“The ATAR is not the only single measure of success or ‘fit’ or ability to be a doctor,” Prof Fagan says.

The change has worked. With a lowered ATAR requirement of 91.4 in rural areas, or 94.3 in urban areas, the 170 places in the Bachelor of Medicine between the two institutions are the most fiercely competitive in the state.

“We have pioneered that method of assessing entry and take it very seriously. It’s been evaluated and refined over a long period of time,” Prof Fagan says.

Help to change

Dominic Fitzsimmons, a student program coordinator at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), says many students now start one degree with the intention of changing over once they’re at the institution.

“There’s a lot more opportunity now to get into the system and change once you’re in,” Dominic says. “I know one female student who got into general science and then decided she wanted to get into microbiology, so did the maths bridging program and specialist courses to get up to the level she needed.

“Another wanted to go into engineering, did a first-year science program, did a maths bridging course and then transferred into engineering.”

The number of previously completed university subjects that will be credited to a student when they change degrees depends on which courses they are changing from and to.

Like many institutions, UNSW offers a free year-long Prep Program – although it is one-and-a-half years for engineering – for those wanting to get into a degree but didn’t achieve the ATAR they needed.

The uni also offers a similar but shorter program for mature age students. The Prep Program is particularly designed for socially or educationally disadvantaged students. “Every uni offers something like this – our programs have just been around a little bit longer,” Dominic says. “We want as many people to get the chance to come to uni as possible.”

Pursuing options

Unlike Karlie and Daniel, Sydneysider Aime Needs had a good academic experience at school.

She got into the Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of Psychology double degree at Macquarie University with an ATAR around 96. “I’d always been interested in people, but the law side of things was actually what I thought I would go into,” Aime says.

But one year into the double degree, Aime stopped enjoying her studies as she became bogged down in contract law “and the slightly dull stuff that goes with a law degree.”

“And I was being told that to get anywhere in law you’d have to step on people and I didn’t want to do that,” she recalls.

Aime took some time off and began exploring other options. “A driving force for me was being able to help people,” she says. “I could do that in law, but I wanted more practical, one-on-one ways to assist people.” I’d always had a bit of interest in medical fields, even though I didn’t take any science subjects at school.”

The more she explored options, the more it seemed that switching to nursing would suit, even though she wouldn’t get any credits for previous study.

“I think I can really be fulfilled doing that,” she thought. And she is.

Aime has finished her first year of nursing and is loving it. She was offered bridging courses in biology and chemistry when she switched to nursing, but decided to just launch in and see how she went. She managed to keep up with the rest of the students without doing any additional courses.

Aime says she knows lots of people who have changed degrees mid-stream. “There’s more than one way to get into what you want to do,” she says.

Her advice to school students picking subjects is: “Do subjects that you are at least a little bit interested in – it makes it so much easier to study. Go with where your strengths lie and don’t worry too much about the prerequisites that a uni says you have to do. If you are determined to get into a degree, you’ll do it.”

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