Will our kids be equipped for the workforce of the future?
By Heidi Tattrie Rushton
The fields that make up STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are growing quickly, however, multiple studies are predicting that by the time this cohort of elementary and junior-high school students graduate high school, there may be a significant gap between what they’re learning and what they need to know in order to succeed in future STEM-based careers.
Sarah Ryan is program director for Brilliant Labs in Nova Scotia. This organization is a not-for-profit, hands-on technology and experiential learning platform that “supports the integration of creativity, innovation, coding, and an entrepreneurial spirit within classrooms and educational curricula.”
Ryan says the projected labour shortage is an issue locally and globally. It affects most of the current STEM fields including artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, cyber security, and aerospace, plus emerging fields like quantum computing.
She’s already seeing change happening in public-school curricula through an increased emphasis on digital skills and computational thinking, which is the core mindset needed for success in computer programming.
“Computational thinking begins with pattern recognition and logical reasoning, no devices or screens required,” she explains. “Digital skills are being recognized as invaluable and are being supported through project-based and hands-on (lessons) to better engage students in developing these skills and preparing them for the future. As youth develop and hone their skills, it is necessary that our educational system continues to equip, guide, and support innovative educational practices.”
Focusing only on computational thinking and digital skills, however, won’t usher this generation into successful careers. Educators will also need to integrate the learning of coding languages with traditional skills (such as sewing and sculpting) to develop the unique skillsets that will meet future industry needs.
“We want our students to graduate from our public education system and contribute to the ICT (Information and Communications Technology) sector in positive ways and bring creativity, innovation, and leadership to these industries,” Ryan says. “One key element is the need to ensure that our teacher training programs are in line with the current classroom realities and future skill demands.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge will be sparking interest in students who are not naturally drawn to the field and removing barriers for groups that have been traditionally underrepresented. Women, who hold only about 30% of the roles in STEM and ICT, as well as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) and other minorities, who hold even fewer roles in those fields, will need role models and opportunities to see their way to success.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MENTORSHIP
Mentorship, as well as providing targeted learning experiences are key to encouraging underrepresented groups to pursue a future in STEM.
“Young girls need to see more visible representations of women in ICT fields so that they too can believe that they can follow the path,” Ryan says. “Young women and BIPOC youth need to realize their potential for creativity, innovation, and ability to become prepared leaders in the 21st century.”
Dr. Angela Siegel is assistant dean in the Faculty of Computer Science Department and the Institutional Lead at the Centre for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning at Dalhousie University. Part of Siegel’s role includes working with the public-school system.
Last year she launched a pilot dual-enrollment opportunity for students taking NS Computer Programming through the Nova Scotia Virtual Schools program. In addition to earning their CP12 high-school credit, the course allowed students the option of taking a few final assessments to earn a university credit while in high school.
“The hope is that this, and future programs of its kind, will create a learner pathway between high schools and post-secondary education, especially for underrepresented, rural, or first-in-family learners,” she explains. “It was exciting to work with students from around the province and help them understand how computer science is shaping the world before us.”
The program launched February 2021 and 32 high-school students, located in all but one of the school regions in Nova Scotia, were able to earn the credit to put towards their first year of university. One of the students even received a $10,000 Women in Tech scholarship from Dalhousie University.
“Maybe this exposure and boost of confidence will be enough to broaden their set of options going forward,” Seigel says. “As a faculty, FCS has been striving to increase the diversity of both our faculty and learners. Not only do we try to encourage more female-identifying students through Women in Tech Scholarships, but we also welcome over 100 female-identifying students from across the province onto campus for Women in Tech Day.”
ADAPTABILITY IS KEY
Siegel believes another key to success in the future workplace lies in the adaptability of the younger generation. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), where we are seeing the fusion of technologies like AI, robotics and quantum computing, the effects of COVID, are making planning for the future more unpredictable than ever. Students need to be taught how to adapt to unexpected changes.
“We must prepare learners to be agile and adaptive, to problem-solve and make connections between fields and topics in ways that they have not yet had to,” says Siegel, adding that the danger that the Fourth Industrial Revolution brings is the potential for greater and growing inequalities. “As access to information and lifelong learning become more important, it is imperative that we consider access to education in new and different ways,” she says.
As a parent, Siegel is seeing these changes implemented in the school curriculum, especially after experiencing online learning during the past two years.
“I’ve seen the effects of this in my own kids … As students become more aware of the changing world around them, through social media, their parents, etc., they will be driving new expectations from us,” she says. “COVID has changed the way we educate and has changed the expectations for access to education. Hopefully, we’ll be able to leverage some of that learning as we move forward and offer access to learning in ways that we hadn’t thought possible.”
A PLACE IN STEM FOR ALL INTERESTS
It’s also important to consider the extra letters that many add to the STEM acronym. These include A (Artistic) and a second E (Entrepreneurship), creating STEEAM.
An increased focus on these areas might encourage children who aren’t initially drawn to subjects such as coding, science, or math, understand how their talents are still important in these fields. Industries such as wearable tech require an eye for design, many modern art installations include a technical component, virtual reality requires an artistic flair to create worlds, and many of these fields will benefit from entrepreneurial talent.
Continued collaborative efforts amongst schools, professionals in the fields, and external programs will help all children in this cohort prepare for whatever the future holds and ignite enthusiasm about the rapidly changing opportunities in STEM.
“If we ourselves are excited about careers in STEM, that passion and excitement can be contagious,” says Ryan. “These wonderful young minds absorb so much information and if we are mindful of this, we can work together to inspire them to pursue careers in the STEM fields.”