As our technologically-advanced present transcends into a technology-dependent future, how do we develop future leaders who can navigate the complexities ahead? STEM Education—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics—seems to hold the key. But STEM is not the goal, it is the means to a problem-solving and innovation-based approach to progress.
The visions of Middle Eastern economies are built on innovation, research, science and technology to form the pillars of a knowledge-based and competitive economy. So, is STEM becoming imperative to mold our future leaders? The simple answer is yes. For many experts, STEM is the basis of how we understand and interpret the world around us, and it is vital to how we will progress in future. Roland Hancock, Director for PwC Middle East’s education practice explains, “The importance of STEM education cannot be underestimated and leaders of the future need to be both comfortable and confident in a technical environment. When we look at the world’s most successful companies, the clear emerging theme is tech enablement.”
“We need to create a workforce of innovators”, agrees Maloy Burman, CEO of educational testing service, Premier Genie FZ LLC, Dubai and Managing Director of Futurite Education, India. “65% of the population in Asia, the Middle East and many other countries are less than 30 years. Learning theoretical concepts in the school will not be enough. From a very early age, students need to figure out how to implement theories into practice and change the technological and industrial landscape.”
A decade after cognitive science book, The Scientist in the Crib, revealed insights about the learning capabilities of very young children, educational experts agree that introducing STEM subjects into a person’s younger years could have tremendous benefits. “While STEM matters on the university level, it needs to be developed across the educational continuum, really beginning even before KG. This does not need to be onerous, though. A child building a bridge in a block corner is engaging in STEM and having fun”, feels Christine Nasserghodsi, VP for the U.A.E. at the TELLAL Institute.
Yet with technology, innovation and change becoming an everyday constant, would STEM education in kindergarten become obsolete by the later stages of learning? Not according to ed-tech and STEM Education Consultant, Laura Toma. “The types of technology or innovation advancements that are popular when kids are in kindergarten might become obsolete by the time they reach high-school,” she admits. “But the STEM principles and the methods of critical thinking that will have been learnt and applied will help children understand what aspects remain constant, what changes and how they can adapt to change”.
STEM programs are increasing in popularity, with public and private schools in the U.A.E. creating opportunities for students. Some are embedding it as part of curricula, and independent institutes are offering robotics, coding and other STEM-related courses. Premier Genie are currently working with over 40 schools in Dubai and teaching more than 2,000 students.
While this shows that teachers and employers are engaged with STEM, experts also caution that developing curricula based on what jobs are currently available or may be in the future is akin to creating specialized employees for a future we actually know
Globally numbers continue to indicate a strong gap between jobs in STEM and STEM graduates. But could encouraging youngsters to embrace STEM based only on its career viability be hampering the pace of adoption?
Toma believes the view can be limiting in its scope. “The current gap between the number of jobs in STEM and the number of graduates is due to a variety of reasons, but one is the lack of association with aspiration and passion.
“For example, Mashable listed 10 cool jobs you could land with STEM right now featuring jobs such as: Music Data Journalist, NASA Curiosity Driver and Legoland Designer. If kids were told that STEM is the means to be able to achieve their creative potential, they would be more attracted to learning maths and engineering.”
So, increasing uptake of STEM subjects among youngsters lies in propagating STEM as part of a larger picture, a path to attain a greater future, and realize personal potential and aspirations.
While STEM jobs and careers continue to be one of the fastest-growing around the world, the GCC especially appears ripe for a STEM boom. Estimates from PwC suggest that 41% of all work activities in Kuwait are susceptible to automation, as are 46% in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, 47% in the U.A.E., 49% in Egypt, 50% in Morocco and Turkey, and 52% in Qatar.
The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs analysis found that, compared to 2015, 21% of core skills required across all occupations will be different by 2020 in the GCC. This was further supported when LinkedIn’s U.A.E. Economic Graph 2017 found that robotics, 3D printing and the Internet of Things are the main skill-clusters driving innovation in the emirates.
The U.A.E., with its focus on innovation and future-readiness, is creating the perfect landscape to entrench STEM into everyday life. In 2017, the government launched the U.A.E. Artificial Intelligence Strategy, with the intention of creating a highly-productive environment and boosting government performance. “Career choices for young graduates in the U.A.E. are therefore becoming more inclined towards STEM fields, which could eventually bridge the supplydemand gap in the job market,” says Hancock.
While technology is embedded in nearly every sphere of our lives today, its constantly evolving nature means no one can predict what the future may hold. And as we move towards this largely unknown future, adaptability, it appears, could be the top skill required to navigate it smoothly. Harvard’s Learning Innovation Lab refers to this as “flexpertise”.
“Youth are naturally curious about all things AI, VR and Crypto. One could imagine a rich conversation about cryptocurrencies, not just in an IT class, but also in geography or economics” says Nasserghodsi.
Role-models hold an important place, to serve as examples for the youth and show them how to use STEM skills to change the world. A survey commissioned by Emirates Global Aluminium, the largest industrial company in the U.A.E. outside oil and gas, revealed in a report in December 2017 that young U.A.E. nationals are increasingly aiming to pursue careers in STEM, but need more high-profile role models and internship opportunities to make this a reality.
One-in-five young people are interested in careers in technology, making it the most popular career aspiration for their generation. And 30% feel access to the insights and experiences of high-profile people who have had successful careers in STEM would be beneficial to pursuing ambitions in these fields. Additionally, 85% of young people and 87% of parents see careers in STEM as more likely to contribute to national development than careers in other fields.
While it is great to be able to look up to Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, it would be more empowering to show kids they don’t have to wait until they reach adulthood to use STEM to bring their ideas to reality.
“Anurudh Ganesan created Vaxxwagon, a refrigerated transportation unit for vaccines powered by its own wheels. Pravin Ravishanker created, ALZCan, which combines neuroscience, statistics and computer programming to diagnose Alzheimer’s before its onset. Charles Noyes created an antivirus software based on bitcoin,” explains Toma. “These are kids who identified problems in the world and solved them. This is the kind of focus and determination that should be used in schools as examples.”