DiPP - Igniting serious STEM education
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) has ever been considered a prime tool to bridge the eSkills gap that runs rampant across Europe, to the tune of 500,000 ICT professionals expected to be missing by 2020. Experience tells that individuals who hold STEM degrees or training certificates are significantly more likely to be employed than the average.
Business-education partnerships have proven effective to improve the talent pool that will lead the race for innovation and growth the world around. However, the need remains to adjust the general population’s skills and the teachers’ competence levels to new job opportunities or to remedy the gender imbalance in STEM studies and careers. With this in mind, the European Commission has taken the initiative to set up a Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition aimed to plug the STEM skills gap and to make Europeans ICT-savvy all along.
To further document this critical set of issues, DIGITALEUROPE joined forces on 24 March 2017 with the STEM Alliance and with a Texas Instruments-led conference on ‘Igniting serious STEM education’: we asked a panel of distinguished experts to launch a Digital in Practice Programme-style conversation.
Saskia Van Uffelen
CEO Belux Ericsson, Digital Champion Belgium
Executive Director, European Schoolnet
Professor of Mathematics Education, International Center for STEM Education, University of Education, Freiburg
Saxon State Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs
Business Development and Alliances Europe, Texas Instruments Education Technology
Director at DIGITALEUROPE
Digital skills are broader than mere technology skills: however exciting it might sound, being conversant with coding is definitely not enough to make the most of life in digital times. Also, STEM is arguably much more than the sum of its parts: for instance, engineering needs both physics to observe the real world and mathematics to infer rules allowing for predictions. Silos are known to inflict serious damage but they are part of our environment at every step of the way, from school to government and business.
Charting a course to success.
Among many roadblocks, STEM education is seen as overly abstract by the youth. We have to make the practical, fun side of STEM felt. This is within reach, as successful initiatives such as BeCentral, ‘I respect’ or MolenGeek demonstrate.
Another ingredient of success is leadership at all levels. Belgium’s deputy prime minister is also in charge of the Digital Agenda and it seems that having a cabinet member responsible for digital area helps focus on development of digital skills. At school levels schoolmasters’ attitude and experience with digital does make a difference.
Drivers of success also include proper infrastructures – not a foregone conclusion in budget-strained school systems -, security and safety of use. A widespread digital mindset is critical too, since being ICT-savvy requires continuing, lifelong adjustment. High-visibility policy tools such as the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition provide a much welcome focus on a set of issues likely to make or break the advent of a fully digital Europe for the benefit of citizens and business alike.
Year after year OECD’s PISA world surveys point to Europe suffering from a shortage of both graduates and teachers in the STEM area. The fact that one third of European teachers are over 50-year old doesn’t help since ICT draws a well documented generation effect. Accordingly, we should get rid of overloaded curricula, improve pedagogical skills across the board, enhance the relevance of content to a fast-changing context, start STEM education as early as primary school, find ways to associate STEM with practical innovation – not abstraction or a thing of the past -, in young, hence malleable minds, also as a gateway to fun, not boring use of their time: stressing the positive makes it contagious. These are but a few of the main objectives which the STEM Alliance has been pursuing over the years. In short governments need to design science-based frameworks flexible enough to accommodate the many facets of STEM education.
That’s where Saxony has a leg up, due to its legacy as Germany’s manufacturing powerhouse and to Germany’s world leadership in apprenticeship, the other name for productive cooperation between industry and government education.
A key driver
Indeed the single most important factor that helps steer the right course is cooperation, with industry and at international level. This is because problem-solving is the way businesses operate: it happens to be the most effective instrument to drive the perception of STEM from a set of abstract principles down to readily available tools to fix each and every roadblock met on the way. Furthermore, most ICT-enabled endeavours have a global reach, at least notionally, hence the benefit of early international cooperation as exemplified at the University of Education in Freiburg.
One of the issues flagged by all surveys is that a number of STEM educated youngsters shun STEM-based jobs. Therefore STEM has to remain attractive all the way from school to professional life. A particular emphasis should be put on teachers if this chicken-and-egg kind of quandary is to be solved in earnest. TI’s T³ programme exemplifies both areas of cooperation, with professional educators and at global level: their latest world congress was held in Chicago, the next European one is scheduled in Brussels on 25-26 March.
In short, STEM education has come a long way across Europe. Results are set to improve even further if this branch of education is made inclusive and sustainable enough to inspire both teachers and students to embrace it. This auspicious development will set in motion a virtuous circle likely to send the eSkills deficit to the cemetery of great scares of the past and to propel Europe to the top league of world education rankings, not to mention the impact on the competitiveness of European business around the world and on the enjoyment of digital lifestyle all over our region.
Should you like to delve into these issues, find inspiring best practices, the website of Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition is recommended: