Transforming STEM education as a way to tackle the challenges of the 21st century

Ensuring that STEM graduates understand the nuances of today's problems will require providing them with arts and humanities education besides traditional science and engineering classes.
Industries: Education
  • Can ISAs help address the tech sector’s talent shortage?
  • Using robots to spark students’ passion for technology
  • Many educational programs help teens learn hacking
  • Open educational resources as an alternative to expensive textbooks and software tools
  • Soft skills are critical for students’ future
  • Without arts and humanities, STEM education is failing the future
  • Better education is a long-term solution to multiple problems

The world is going through a technological transformation on a scale unparallelled in human history. Engineers and developers are constantly shaping the way we communicate and work, creating new industries and products. And tech progress, having permeated all facets of our lives, has become the standard by which we measure success. So, it’s no wonder that the demand for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent now outstrips supply, and universities are increasingly trying to spark students’ passion for technology. But to ensure that students become well-rounded individuals, it’s important to teach them arts and humanities courses in addition to STEM subjects. Soft skills such as collaboration and communication are critical, too. That way, young graduates will be able to better understand the impact that new technologies might have on society, instead of merely looking at the impact from an engineering point of view.

Can ISAs help address the tech sector’s talent shortage?

The tech sector has experienced massive growth in recent years, as evidenced by the growing number of new startups, many of which go on to reach unicorn status. However, despite an unprecedented amount of investments pouring into the sector, it seems that tech companies are struggling to find enough talent to satisfy their needs. One of the main reasons for this shortage of talent is that the cost of higher education continues to grow, leaving it out of reach for many students. Students often have to rely on third-party funding sources, such as loans, scholarships, or government programs, to attend their university of choice. Student loans in particular have proven troublesome, with many students struggling to repay their loans and remaining in debt for a long period of time. In fact, student loan debt in the United States has more than quadrupled over the last 15 years and has reached $1.6 trillion in 2019. Fortunately, there might be a solution.

A text box showing the increasing student loan debt in the US over the last 15 years.
Over the last 15 years, student loan debt in the US has grown to $1.6 trillion, more than quadrupling in this time period.

Income share agreements have recently emerged as a promising solution that could help us address the student loan debt crisis, as well as the growing talent shortage in the tech sector. An income share agreement (ISA) is a contract in which a student receives education in exchange for a percentage of their future salary. That means that instead of paying anything upfront, students will only pay for the education they’ve received once they find a job.

For instance, the Lambda School, a San Francisco-based online coding boot camp, allows students to take its software engineering courses for free until they find a job. Once they sign up for the course, students are presented with two options: they can either pay the $20,000 tuition upfront or sign an ISA, which enables them to attend the school for free until they secure a job that pays at least $50,000 annually. Once they do, they have to pay 17 per cent of their salary for two years, or until the total payment reaches $30,000. If they don’t find a job within five years, they don’t have to pay anything. That shouldn’t be an issue, though, as 83 per cent of Lambda School graduates are hired within six months and often earn more than $50,000 a year.

Using robots to spark students’ passion for technology

Some companies are turning to robots to increase students’ interest in technology and make learning more engaging. The multinational accounting firm PwC, for instance, has launched a humanoid robot called CODE-E. The robot engages with students and encourages them to think about how they can use technology to solve issues they might be having. CODE-E has already been used at the Academy for Software Engineering (AFSE) in New York, where it brought “curiosity and excitement to the classroom”. AFSE’s students were asked to think of practical examples of how emerging technologies could help them solve some of the problems they faced in school. Thanks to interactions they had with the robot, the students were able to come up with a number of interesting ideas, such as developing an app to notify them if a seat in the cafeteria is taken, or an automated system to provide access to the restroom.

Robots are also attractive to younger students, especially when they’re learning the basic concepts of coding. At the Bots for Tots workshop, held in Palos Verdes Estates, California, four- and five-year-old children were given a chance to learn about coding with the help of Ozobot, a small robot capable of detecting colours. Ozobot allows children to create colour combinations that instruct it to perform different tasks, such as speeding up or slowing down and turning left or right. The goal of the Bots for Tots workshop is to start teaching children coding principles from a young age. So, by the time students are in high school, they’re already familiar with the process, and they can even design their own robots.

Many educational programs help teens learn hacking

The growth of the tech industry is constantly threatened by nefarious actors like cyber criminals, who exploit digital vulnerabilities for theft, blackmail, and extortion. Cybersecurity professionals need to tackle this challenge by protecting sensitive data and ensuring that online infrastructure runs efficiently. But the demand for digital security experts already outstrips the supply. In fact, by 2021, there will be around 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs, leading to a potential increase in data breaches. This talent shortage has led to universities revamping their computer science (CS) programs and public institutions funding additional educational projects.

A text box showing the number of unfilled cybersecurity jobs by 2021.
By 2021, there will be around 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs, which can lead to an increase in data breaches.

Despite many improvements, schools still struggle to teach students relevant digital skills. In the US, for instance, less than half of the top 50 computer science undergraduate programs offer three or more information security-related courses. However, there are some positive examples. The University of Maryland College Park, for instance, offers a cybersecurity concentration for IT majors, the University of California Berkeley held a ‘Cyberwar’ class in 2017, teaching students ethical hacking skills, and Northeastern University has 11 courses that cover various aspects of digital security.

Some universities went even further. The Texas A&M University, for example, enables students to work part-time in its Security Operations Centre, investigating threats detected by AI software. Young people get a chance to analyse suspicious activities and contribute to the protection of an institution that faces a million hacking attempts each month. This experience helps them learn more about cybersecurity and focus their studies on this topic.

Open educational resources as an alternative to expensive textbooks and software tools

The rise of digital education has led to the development of affordable web-based learning materials, making traditional textbooks obsolete. This trend is fuelled by the open educational resources (OERs) initiative that enables students to access free course materials and helps teachers to collaborate with each other. But creating free and open courses, modules, textbooks, videos, software, and other educational tools is a complex undertaking. It requires digital infrastructure that helps institutions to work together efficiently.

To address this need, the US-based Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) developed OpenSimon, a set of digital tools for teachers, researchers, and developers in the edtech industry. The system consists of various products, including XBlock, a forum that enables collaboration on the development of web-based courses and offers recommendation software for improved navigation of digital knowledge bases. In addition to providing convenient software tools, OERs benefit students by replacing expensive textbooks with digital alternatives. At Wake Tech Community College in North Carolina, for example, instructors saved students hundreds of thousands of dollars by creating free educational resources for the Introduction to Business course.

Soft skills are critical for students’ future

Apart from technical skills, STEM students will also have to develop a range of soft skills. Communication skills are particularly important for students’ future and can help them succeed in their personal and professional lives. In the workplace, effective communication allows employees to exchange information more efficiently, helps them achieve their business goals and creates an environment that’s conducive to increased employee satisfaction and better relationships. Since the business world is only becoming more competitive, managers should be able to communicate clearly with their employees on how to achieve their goals and develop new business strategies.

So, how can teachers help students develop such skills? The Global Digital Citizen Foundation advises teachers to implement role-playing activities in the classroom by providing students with situations in which they’re able to discuss and prepare for potentially stressful events. For instance, in a public speaking scenario, students can practice how to deliver a short speech. This is especially helpful for students who have a fear of public speaking.

Besides communication, educators should also focus on teaching students how to think critically and creatively. Instead of asking “what?”, educators should prompt students to answer questions like “how?” and “why?”. As the teacher trainer and educator Brian Oshiro explains, “what” questions “can be answered with a quick web search”, which gives students “a false sense of security”. But when students need to provide evidence for their statements, it encourages them to go beyond superficial knowledge and make connections among various pieces of information.

Without arts and humanities, STEM education is failing the future

The lack of deep understanding of specific topics and failure to think about the consequences of one’s actions can lead to a ‘bias to action’, an urge felt by many entrepreneurs and scientists to get something done without necessarily reflecting on the morals, values, and ethics of their decisions. The root of this problem can be traced back to the failures of the education system, most notably in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

Graduates of STEM departments typically get well-paid jobs, as the private sector rewards their knowledge of data analysis, smart algorithms, and software development. And universities, responding to market incentives, usually don’t incorporate elements of arts and humanities into STEM courses, or even debate the ethical and social consequences of certain technologies. Young experts then move to startups and corporations, creating high-tech solutions that might affect millions of people, but aren’t necessarily going to improve their lives. And the consequences of this approach are becoming increasingly evident, as the world grapples with a multitude of problems created by cutting-edge technologies, not to mention the startling reluctance of companies to solve the issues they’ve caused.

Take, for example, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI). It can save lives by spotting lung cancer faster than radiologists can, and it makes shopping on Amazon more convenient by giving personalised recommendations. But it can also deprive people of their freedom. AI-powered predictive justice systems, used in many courts to “set bail, determine sentences, and even contribute to determinations about guilt or innocence”, are hardly unbiased ‘judges’. They’re known for reinforcing existing racial biases and falsely flagging black defendants as future criminals almost twice as often as white defendants.

Clearly, many of the technologies that power modern tools and services were developed with little thought given to their wider social impact. Addressing these challenges requires educating a new generation of STEM graduates who, as professor Richard Lachman says, are “able to engage with the toughest questions of our time: What, where and how should our new inventions be engaged”. Integrating arts into STEM fields to create STEAM education could be a good solution. And rather than taking valuable time away from students who want to become engineers, arts and humanities are actually known for helping young people make connections between concepts and approach problems in new ways.

Better education is a long-term solution to multiple problems

New technologies are reshaping the educational sector, making it easier to create, deliver, and share course materials. And instead of expensive textbooks and software tools, students can now access free resources that save them money and provide a better learning experience. This especially benefits the STEM field, as tech-savvy students are eager to use online resources to improve their education. While they seek knowledge, students should also work on their critical thinking skills and learn how to communicate more effectively with their peers and teachers. Finding the right balance between innovation and its social consequences is becoming one of the major challenges of today’s world, and a better STEM education system is seen as a potential long-term solution.

Industries: Education
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