Engineering a Bright Future for the Class of 2020

Posted a year ago

Picture a world where computers are building made-to-order personalised robotic arms and synthetic organs, drones are circulating above Mars to inspect the current harvest of aquaponic plants on the planet’s surface and self-driving space craft are in conversation, negotiating the most efficient and safe route for each to take to arrive at neighbouring continents within the hour … then look at the students leaving class for the day with a bag full of maths worksheets, rulers and calculators - these children will be the inventors, policy makers, engineers and law enforcement for the creations of tomorrow and we must equip them with the fundamental skills to adapt to the rapidly changing world they are soon to be lost in.

Due to the rapid growth of technology, the future has never been more unpredictable, and it presents a huge challenge in education: we are teaching students how to work in a future that we have never been more unsure of. We have no idea where new tech advancements are taking us - we can only guess. Many people, myself included, believe that our greatest insurance for future students’ ability to make meaningful contributions to society is to pay great attention to STEM learning now.

It is widely predicted that in eight years time, there will be more jobs in the fields of science, mathematics, technology and engineering than in any other discipline. And, as the technology continues to develop, it will soon become clear that addressing social problems will involve more innovative thinking, and analytical and technical knowledge than ever before. Undeniably, there are no subjects that encourage innovative and creative thinking, deep thought, problem solving and independence more than the STEM subjects.

In recent years, there has been an explosive interest from world-class educational institutions such as Harvard, MIT and Cambridge in students who have taken an interest in data, applied math and statistics - any STEM subject for that matter. It is becoming clear that digital and technological careers are no longer a niche pathway to pursue, as opportunities to work in these high-skill specialisations are rapidly presenting themselves. The future is looking brighter than ever for students who pursue STEM subjects at university. If technology continues to advance at the rate it currently is, STEM students of today will be the ones who are paving the way to the future of tomorrow.

While it is widely commented on that there is a need to reimagine the ways STEM subjects are taught in schools by embracing a more interactive and innovative approach to appeal to more students, it should come as no surprise that some of the most reputable educational organisations in the world are already implementing changes to embrace STEM. Harvard, for example, announced in 2014 that they were increasing their computer science faculty by over 50% and has since introduced computer science as a core subject for all freshmen. Their idea to encourage the use and understanding of computer technologies, regardless of students’ favoured discipline, is a hallmark of the top-ranked institutions’ dedication to providing an education that will prepare students to act as industry leaders in new jobs markets of the future. Students who take interest in STEM classes position themselves ahead of the pack, and the same logic applies for the educational institutions who provide these classes. If schools and universities are able to evolve their curricula to embrace a more hands-on approach to STEM subjects they will encourage more creative, innovative and independent thinking at earlier ages, presenting the potential to produce the brightest minds in history; and not based simply on the use of a calculator.

In recent years the idea of intelligence has shifted dramatically to now encourage creative thinking, where once creative thinking was discouraged as separate from intelligence. STEM subjects, above all else, provide students with the ability to prompt many facets of learning - kinaesthetic, aural and visual – and support creative thought processes, aiding the development of different skills and areas of the brain, not just technological, scientific and mathematical.

Take for example Soumil, a senior school student who is being heralded as the smartest teen in New Zealand. Soumil was one of the nine premier scholars for the Year 13 class of 2015. In his final year of school, Soumil aced three STEM subjects: physics, economics and statistics. However, Soumil moved beyond the obvious choice to become a doctor, a mathematician or a scientist. He instead wants to pursue a career in International Relations and enjoyed entrepreneurship. Areas that on the surface would appear to have very little to do with STEM subjects, however, International Relations and also Entrepreneurism, like STEM subjects, is all about innovative thinking, and problem solving. STEM subjects not only provide students with logical and technical skills, but also encourage problem-solving, an invaluable skill to have across many aspects of life and can be applied to any career tract.

The urgency of supporting STEM subjects at a young age is becoming more relevant than ever, as adopting a keen interest in the curricula needs to happen early. However, beyond the age issue is one of gender. According to a 2012 study conducted by The Girls Scouts of America, in the US only 20% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer science and physics were awarded to women. What’s even more alarming is that only 14.4% of the UK’s STEM workforce is female. Women make up over 50% of the world’s population; they are a big part of our growth and development as a global community and are essential to participate in STEM development.

Still, there is hope and sentiments are changing. During her senior year in 2015, Georgi, a socially-conscious entrepreneur was awarded the Prime Minister’s Future Scientist prize ($50,000 NZ) for her Root Aquaponics business; an enterprise which uses fish tanks to help grow edible plants in the home, for families to rely less on commercially-grown crops.

This year she was offered a Robertson’s Scholarship, covering full tuition to attend Duke University. Her wish is to make positive contributions to the sustainability of campus life. She is now a Crimson tutor and continues to inject her passion for STEM in her support to others.

We need STEM ambassadors like Soumil and Georgia to advocate the importance of diversity in interests and subjects to our students today, to equip them with a resilient, agile and problem-solving mindset for tomorrow. Our top-ranked institutions around the world are catching up to the fact as today’s entrepreneurs are racing ahead of the pack.

For the class of 2020, robotic engineers, agricultural space scientists and coders for spacecraft conversation is almost a guaranteed mention on their resume.

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