The following article featuring Universities Canada president Paul Davidson was published in the Globe and Mail on October 21, 2016.
Preparing Canadian students for the challenge of change
After 18 months of study, a panel of experts brought together by the Council of Canadian Academies published a report last year that emphasized the critical importance to Canada and Canadians of STEM skills.
The panel led by former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge. pointed out that STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – benefits society in many ways, from breakthrough drugs to safe structures, more efficient and sustainable forms of transportation, convenient apps and innovative forms of workplace organization, and that maintaining Canada’s capacity for producing advanced STEM skills, while finding new ways to foster demand for these skills through business innovation, remains essential for sustaining and improving our quality of life.
But teaching STEM skills against a background of rapid changes in technology and uncertainty about what combination of skills will be needed in the workplaces of the future is a challenge for educators.
Paul Davidson, president and CEO of Universities Canada, says while Canada needs young people to be focused on the STEM disciplines, employers and society at large are also sending the signal that STEM on its own will not be enough.
“We talk about moving from STEM to STEAM, to include the arts and humanities and social sciences in a program of preparation for young people,” he says. “The liberal arts element and the humanities element can add real value to the curriculum of a student pursuing an engineering program.”
Some universities have recognized this and, for example, combined the in-depth technical training of a computer science program with the sophisticated analytical skills required in an arts degree, adds Mr. Davidson.
He points out that 40 years ago when inter-disciplinarity was starting to take root, the sense was that you had to become grounded in your own discipline and then be exposed to other disciplines; “But now the growing view is that we have to have that kind of mixture much earlier on in the student’s experience, and we have to find mechanisms throughout the university and throughout our research and innovation landscape that makes inter-disciplinarity second nature,” he says.
The reason is partly because of the way in which high-tech sectors are changing the economy, and hiring students who not only know technology, but also understand sales, marketing and other social science disciplines.
Gina Cherkowski, founder and CEO of Calgary-based STEM learning Lab, says Canada lags behind other countries in implementing STEM as an integrated practice.
“For example the U.S. has been implementing STEM for about 10 years. And Finland, a longstanding world leader in education, has removed siloed subjects, like math and social studies, in place of integrated learning, which really is the heart of STEM.”
Dr. Cherkowski adds that STEM provides opportunities for students to explore traditional subject areas by working on authentic, real world projects that are more engaging and create more opportunities for innovative thinking, collaboration and creativity.
She says the world is transitioning from the information age to the innovation age, which calls for skills to be used in a different way.
“Future leaders will need to be very strong at creatively looking at problems and finding innovative solutions that really work for our society. STEM allows learning to be viewed through this lens and will better prepare our students for their future,” she adds.
STEM education acknowledges the realities and needs of today’s innovation era and strives to give students the tools, skill and mindsets they need to navigate through this successfully, says Dr. Cherkowski.
“To thrive today, we all need to be able to see problems in our work and use tests to create solutions, apply technology and understand the constant flow of data coming into our lives. We need to be able to shift, adapt, learn what we don’t know and persist through failure,” she adds. “Having the ability to use all these skills together, we are also given the opportunity to look at our world critically and design creative solutions. Learning the basics across all these areas also lets us move more quickly and easily as new opportunities develop.”
But STEM should not be a priority for universities alone. Early exposureto STEM is also important.
“I see many schools working toward integrating STEM practices, and we at STEM Learning Lab spend considerable time supporting schools and teachers with the integration of STEM learning into their classrooms,” says Dr. Cherkowski.
But more needs to be done to integrate STEM education in schools because teachers already face demands, and without additional support they will not be able to fully embrace this shift toward STEM.
“Student teachers are being taught STEM education in most post-secondary institutions, but we need to up-skill current classroom teachers as well,” she says. “We should support them by providing more professional development in STEM pedagogy and integration of technology in the classroom.”
Tagged: Research and innovation
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