For everyone Keeping weapons out of our classrooms

In 2017, parents at a Glasgow school were “horrified” to find out that their children were participating in a BAE Systems STEM workshop. They contacted the media to highlight their concerns about an arms manufacturer gaining access to their children’s classroom. “It was a glitzy and slick event… the children were mesmerised,” one parent said. “But what [BAE] weren’t showing was the true picture… the death and misery they are causing.”

The Medical Association for Prevention of War (MAPW) is seeking to raise awareness about similar programs and curriculum resources developed by weapons companies and the defence industry in Australia, so that school communities here might also speak out.

MAPW board member and GP Jenny Grounds says that, for teachers, “it’s a matter of standing up and saying you don’t want your students taking part in these programs – and making parents aware that these companies are trying to ‘peace-wash’ themselves by promoting their brand in a positive way, when really what they’re about is making profit from the deaths that are happening in so many parts of the world, but Gaza at the moment is particularly on our minds.”

“Promoting an interest in sophisticated weaponry is the antithesis of what we want young people to grow up with.”

Jenny Grounds, MAPW

British defence giant BAE Systems has been named in a dossier recently submitted to the International Criminal Court by human rights groups seeking an investigation into possible war crimes in Yemen. BAE makes fighter jets, combat vehicles, explosives, missile launchers, and other high-tech weaponry. It is also involved in the production of electronic warfare and nuclear weapons. 

And yet, BAE is also a major sponsor of STEM education programs targeting children as young as four years old, including FIRST LEGO League, Beacon, and Concept 2 Creation. It is just one of a long list of weapons manufacturing or defence industry companies that sponsor or partner with schools and education programs around the world. Among these are Lockheed Martin; Raytheon; Boeing; Northrop Grumman; Thales; SAAB; and Airbus.

The AEU wrote to Department Secretary Jenny Atta late last year to raise the union’s concerns about the increased trend for weapons companies to develop STEM curriculum promoting skills and interest in military technology among students. AEU Victoria’s leadership has also raised these objections directly in meetings with the education minister, highlighting contradictions with the department’s policy, which specifically states that schools should not engage in sponsorship with organisations involved in the sale or promotion of firearms and other weaponary.

In its report Minors Not Missiles, the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) identifies 35 STEM programs associated with global weapons corporations seeking to build positive brand recognition among Australian students. Astoundingly, the Australian Department of Defence is the lead agency in half of all national STEM initiatives. Students are targeted with education materials, enticing technology projects, and promises of “amazing” career opportunities. In this way, they are shaping STEM education – often endorsed and frequently funded by state, territory, and federal governments – with very little scrutiny or awareness among teachers and families, the report warns.

Cartoon: Fiona Katauskas

In a recent Branch Council resolution, the AEU expressed its opposition to the AUKUS pact and restated its “commitment to the anti-war, peace, and broader union movement to expose and oppose the threat inherent in this rise in militarism”. It also pointed to the obvious disparity between the “massive amount” of public revenue being spent on military expenditure and the ongoing underfunding of public education. 

Following advocacy from MAPW and the AEU, the department amended its sponsorship policy to state that schools must not use resources created by “inappropriate organisations”, including those involved in the sale or promotion of weapons. AEU members should apply the department’s policy, and not use teaching and learning material sponsored by weapons manufacturers. However, these programs continue to be heavily promoted Australia-wide.

“I think the department should be much firmer about its guidelines,” Jenny Grounds says. “I want to see the department be much clearer about not wanting weapons companies to insinuate their way into schools through these extracurricular programs.”

Education programs that try to persuade students that these companies do good work or to promote an interest in weapons are “the antithesis of what we want our young people to grow up with,” Jenny adds. “The world needs peace, not war. The world needs so many good science students to go into areas that will help the planet and help humanity to save itself. I want to see much more promotion for careers in other areas like biology, environmental science, and humanities, to help solve the problems of the world.”

Read AEU Victoria’s resolution expressing opposition to the AUKUS security pact – 29 March 2023

Read AEU Federal’s statement on the conflict in Israel and Palestine – 24 October, 2023

Read AEU Victoria’s resolution on ‘Educating for peace’, calling for the Albanese government to advocate for a permanent ceasefire in the Middle East – 8 December 2023

List of Programs*

The following programs had one or more weapons or defence industry companies listed as a sponsor or partner between February and May 2022. The list is not exhaustive, as new programs are regularly launched, and sponsorship arrangements can change. We recommend checking program websites carefully, and inquiring with organisers about partnership arrangements.

• ASC Robot Rumble • Beacon • Creativity in Research Engineering, Science and Technology (CREST) • Code Quest • Concept 2 Creation • Cyber Taipan • Engineering Is Elementary • Engquest • First Lego League • First Robotics Competition • iSTEM (Regional Development Australia) • Lockheed Martin Australia (LMA) Engineers in the Classroom • ME Program • National Engineering and Science Challenge • National Youth Science Forum • Port Adelaide Football Club Power Of STEM Program • Port Adelaide Football Club Community Youth Program • Raytheon Australia Playford International College STEM Academy Scholarship • Regional Development Australia (RDA)/Hunter ME Program • Robo Cats • Robo Girls • Science Alive • Science Assist • Space Camp • STEM Camp • STEM Day Out • Thales And Tech Schools Design Competition • The Ultimate STEM Event 2022 • World Solar Challenge • YMCA Space Squad • World Solar Challenge • YMCA Space Squad • Young Space Explorers STEM programs delivered under the following initiatives are also associated with weapons companies: • Defence Industry Skilling STEM Strategy • Defence Industry Skills Support • Defence Industry Internship Program • Defence Industry Pathway Program • National Defence Industry Skills Office • Pathways in Technology • School Pathways Program • Skilling Australia’s Defence Industry Grant Program • STEM Professionals in Schools

List of Companies*

The following companies were associated with STEM education programs between February and May 2022. The list of companies is not exhasutive, as new programs are regularly launched, and sponsorship arrangements can change. We recommend checking program websites carefully, and inquiring with organisers about partnership arrangements.

ASC Pty Ltd

*Source: Minors and Missiles, Copyright 2022, Medical Association for Prevention of War

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