STEM: Engaging the Rapidly Approaching New Horizon

Author: Adam Norris & Paul Smargiassi   Date Posted:13 December 2016 

How our understanding of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths will determine our future standing in the world.

 

An Old Story

A man walks into a bar after a long day at work and sits on his favourite stool and orders his favourite drink. The bartender knows him well. He sees him every day at the same time. He only stays for two drinks before going home to his family.

The bartender notices the man looks particularly weary this afternoon and tries to cheer him up.

“How was it out there today?” asks the bartender putting a drink down in front of him.

“It’s rough out there today,” said the man shaking his head, taking the glass from the bar and raising in the direction of the bartender before putting it to his lips.

“How’s the family?” asks the bartender trying to cheer the man again.

“My daughter wants to be a Photogrammetrist,” said the man in disbelief. “My eldest son wants to be a Electromechanical Engineering Technologist specialising in Green Industry Design Analysis, my youngest wants to be a Geospatial Information Scientist  and my boss just let me know he’s enrolling me in an eighteen-month night course for an Introduction to Nano-Mechatronical Engineering.”

“Wow,” said the barman impressed. “You must have some smart kids.”

“I do,” said the man emptying his glass and setting it down on the bar.

The barman surprised at how fast his regular had finished his drink, quickly made him another and set it down in front of him.

“Well that can only be a good thing,” said the barman, “Your children will be successful and rich.”

“It’s not my kids I’m worried about,” replied the man.

 

“Education isn’t something you can finish.”  Isaac Asimov

 

Everyone has heard the stories of innovation changing the world before our eyes. Everyone over twenty five remembers growing up as a child without the internet, everyone over thirty five remembers finishing high school without the internet and everyone over forty five is just happy they still have a job they can pronounce without too much squinting.

The world has transformed from the traditional nine to five, hands-on, face to face workplaces of the recent past to the near fully automated, digital landscapes, unimaginable only a few decades before.

The bad news for those unprepared or unwilling to accept what’s coming, is that the transformation has only just begun and the forecast for the future is more transformation that’s not  only quicker and faster than before, but transformation that will be ever-changing, constantly in motion and insanely unpredictable.

Which, as educators, makes it very difficult to imagine and almost impossible to prepare for.

Take an innocuous trip to the local supermarket which until recently hadn’t changed in decades. But now the once ubiquitous check-out ladies, who stood weary and proud for eight hours a day, are slowly but surely being replaced by the robotic self-service stand-alones that entice exiting shoppers with their speed and efficiency as well as subtly encouraging all who use them to shop smaller and more frequently.

By increasing the frequency of shopping trips per customer, the supermarket also increases the superfluous purchases almost every shopper makes each time they step inside the grocery store. Unless you are a Trappist monk, each time you leave the supermarket you usually have with you, one or two items you had no intention of purchasing when you left home.

Now if you shop three times a week instead of one, that extra five dollars you whimsically spent on chewing gum, gossip magazines and Australian grown garlic, has now become fifteen, which very quickly amounts to billions in extra revenue collected at the cashless register. Transformative innovation indeed.

 

“If you are scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you and that understanding empowers you.” Neil DeGrasse Tyson

 

Here is what makes the STEM phenomenon such an interesting new trend in educational theory. It is a response to provide answers to questions which are at the moment unknowable. 

STEM does not provide students with the skills to perform particular roles in a given society but rather seeks to equip the students with a literacy of Maths, Science, Engineering and Technology, as although we do not know what the jobs, roles and workplaces of the future will look like, we can almost be certain that proficiency in these subjects will be highly advantageous.

This is what perhaps separates the STEM phenomenon from just another educational trend or theory. It is a trend that declares the future is undefinable, chaotic and somewhat unteachable but through STEM, although the nature of future industries is mysterious, the building blocks or foundational knowledge required for such a future is clear. 
In a sense a focus on STEM subjects within the curriculum is akin to a survival kit an explorer may take with him when charting unknown territory.  If the rate of change which has taken place over the last century continues, which barring any unforeseen apocalyptic scenarios, it almost certainly will, the working landscape of the future will be as familiar to today’s citizens as eighteenth century Australia was to the first European explorers.

 

The unknowable future, is through STEM proficiency, at the very least approachable.

 

By providing a STEM focused curriculum we are giving our children the tools necessary to face these rather frightening unknown unknowns.

It should not be ignored that there is a bravery in embracing STEM as educators, as what such an embrace actually communicates to the student, inadvertently or otherwise, is the idea that we, as teachers, administrators and policy makers, actually don’t have the answers they will very soon need.

Embracing STEM subjects is telling each student that those who they look to for guidance, inspiration and wisdom, do not in any way shape or form have a true understanding of the world they will face as future adults and parents.

A declaration which is confronting, as well as freeing, for both student and teacher alike.

This is most interesting when you look at educational practice throughout history as what is taking place in today’s climate actually echoes strongly the teaching philosophy of the ancient Greeks. The word education comes from the Latin “ducere” which means to “draw or lead out of”. That is, the answer is already within the student, it is the teacher’s role to guide and direct the student to find the answer already existing within themselves.

This is a very different prospect than the traditional role of the teacher filling up or putting knowledge into the student. This idea of “ducere” was at the heart of the Socratic method of teaching used by Socrates himself nearly two and a half thousand years ago. The answers were never given to the students, rather the right questions would be asked of them and they would discover the answers themselves.

 

“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” Socrates

 

By emphasising the importance of STEM literacy, we give the next generation the tools to successfully navigate and create their own futures. Through scientific literacy students will come to appreciate and marvel at their own curiosities and follow their investigations to find answers and solutions to problems and inquiry. Through a familiarity with technology the students can turn what they have come to understand through their scientific investigations into real world products and services which will transform and improve their everyday lives. Through Maths and Engineering students can analyse, dissect and overcome seemingly unsolvable obstacles to realise their vision of the world in which they wish to live.

STEM has already undergone a transformation of its own with the inclusion of another subject in the core group giving the botanical acronym a somewhat industrial tone. The addition of the Arts transforms STEM to STEAM and gives an underlying energy of creativity and imagination for those working within the core subjects.

The Arts in this sense becomes a necessary adjunct to STEM by connecting the shared dots of each discipline as well as providing an initial port of inspiration and wonder. Art can be seen as the key to creativity which in turn can be seen as the essential component which drives innovation and innovation is after all, that which creates and determines new industries, which by their definition ensure the future economic stability and by extension, the very well being of society itself.

Embracing STEM/STEAM within the curriculum is giving students the mental equipment to draw out of themselves that which will hopefully guarantee their prosperity in a baffling future world which is barrelling towards us all with increasing velocity each and every day.

 

Top Ten STEM Careers heading into 2017

  1. Civil Engineers –These folks are the brains behind every road, bridge and tunnel you’ve ever driven through without it collapsing in on top of you. Their median salary is $82,000 a year with a 2.8% unemployment rate.
  2. Industrial Psychologists-These statistic loving freaks use psychological theories and apply them to issues within the workplace. They are the ones who’ll tell you who to hire, who’s going to buy your breakfast cereal and why your latest ad campaign will be a unmitigated distaster. They make around $76,000 and year and have an unemployment rate less than 2%.
  3. Information Security Analyst- These computer savants keep your companies network systems secure. They’ll keep the Russians out of the next U.S election and make sure the next Australian Census stays up and running for longer than an hour and a half. Their unemployment rate is less than 1.5% and they earn just under 90k per annum.
  4. IT Manager-These workers organise, manage and maintain an organisations technology systems. Which means they also are responsible for hiring the Information Security Analyst above. They are in high demand and warrant a commensurable median salary of $127,640.
  5. Biomedical Engineer-Median salary $86,950, 2.5% unemployment rate. These engineers bring their skills to the medical professions designing, researching and creating devices used in health care. We have these guys to thank for everything from the MRI machine to the bone density scanner as well as that cold torch thing the doctor jams in your ear when you tell him you feel like you’re coming down with something.
  6. Actuary-These mathematicians are all about the business of risk or more importantly the financial consequences of risk. They are rampant in pension and insurance companies, analysing data and crunching numbers to see what companies can and can’t do if they want to survive. There median income is just shy of 100k a year and they have a 4% unemployment rate.
  7. Computer Programmer–Median salary $77,550, 2.5% unemployment rate. Computer Programmers write the code that allows software programs to run. Which means they could be coding to make sure the automatic landing gear works on the first Jupiter probe or maybe just getting the barrier to move up and down at the parking garage when someone validates their ticket. 
  8. Financial Analyst-Median salary $78,620, unemployment rate 2.2%. Financial Analysts are the guys and gals you call when you want to know when, why and how much of your investment you want to sell or buy. They’re like weather forecasters for money and they work long lonely hours computing data on financial trends, movements and forecasts. Definitely worth avoiding these guys at parties.
  9. Logisticians- Median salary $73,620, unemployment rate 2.2 percent. These Generals of the modern world are experts in coordination and harness their mastery of any given situation to accomplish a said task. These guys are the reason UPS Delivery Trucks in the United States never turn left. You might call them to plan your wedding or clean up after an oil spill. 
  10. Epidemiologists-Median salary $67,420, unemployment rate 3.9%. These men and women are experts in tracking and analysing infections and can be found getting their science on in hospitals, labs and universities around the world.