Is STEM the Key? (Part Three)

The message from PwC is clear, Australia needs to take action now if we are not to slip behind the rest of the world. 'Australia is waking up to the fact that the good times can’t go on forever. In the face of economic challenges and a digital revolution that’s reshaping business and the workforce, we need to act.’ (PwC - A Smart Move). What Australia needs is an increased focus on STEM to enable us to compete in a global economy driven by ‘data, digital technologies and innovation. According to PwC seventy-five percent of the fastest growing occupations require STEM related skills but it is in this area that Australia is lacking.

The Me2 is an Australian designed and built 3D Printer that is largely aimed at the Education market -

The Me2 is an Australian designed and built 3D Printer that is largely aimed at the Education market -

PwC analysis found that increasing our STEM workforce by 1% would add $57.4 billion to our GDP in coming years. 'Inextricably woven into the fabric of our economic future is the impact of digital disruption, arguably the most significant mega-trend of the 21st century. Digital technologies are radically changing the way we live, consume and work.’  Be it in the form of machine learning, 3D printing social media or crowdsourcing the impact of digital is seen to be everywhere and everywhere it is having a disruptive influence, changing the make-up of our workforce and creating new pressures in the job market as demand for STEM qualifications out paces supply and old occupations are replaced. Among the jobs that will give way to automation in the next 20 years according to PwC are accounting clerks and bookkeepers (97.5%), checkout operators (96.9%) general office support (96.1%), personal assistants (92.4%) and farm and forestry workers (92.5%).

'Modelling shows that the jobs most likely to endure over the next couple of decades are ones that require high levels of social intelligence, technical ability and creative intelligence. This includes doctors and nurses, teachers, engineers, and information communication and technology (ICT) professionals, and managers.'

While the report predicts some of our present occupations are likely to linger it also suggests that the future will include many jobs that do not yet exist. These yet unknown occupations will be a result of innovation and the report card for Australia is not good with our competency and capacity to innovate being rated by OECD as ‘average’.  

'In order to realise our potential, Australia needs a workforce that is technologically savvy and able to innovate. And one of the best ways to do this is by improving capabilities in STEM.'

The answer for business beyond increasing its capacity for innovation is to partner with education to build a STEM capable workforce for the future. Through open discussion with educators and by building partnerships, offering internships, and breaking down stereotypes business can play a part in delivering change through education reports PwC. The key is the concept of ‘educating to innovate’.

So far this discussion has been somewhat clear cut, the future workforce will require STEM related skills and the way to develop this is through partnerships between educators, business and governments to bring about the changes in the education system required to produce suitably qualified STEM graduates. But is it possible that STEM is just another fad that will come and go and does the call for STEM distract us from identifying the true skills our students need?

Not all writers support STEM as the answer to the needs of the future workforce. Author of ‘In defines of a Liberal Education’ Fareed Zakaria calls for caution as we rush towards a STEM focused educational system. 'This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future.’ While Zakaria agrees that innovation is important he argues that it is not restricted to STEM subjects and that in limiting student choices or encouraging a STEM pathway the benefits of a well-rounded education are lost. What is needed is a broadly applicable ability for innovation, critical thinking, imagination, passion and social intelligence. 'Innovation in business has always involved insights beyond technology.’ writes Zakaria.

Unsurprisingly there are those who feel Zakaria got it wrong. 'All obsessions can be dangerous’ points out Dr. Jalees Rehman in response to Zakaria. According to Rehman STEM is all about teaching students to be critical and creative thinkers and is not about the transfer of technical skills as Zakaria alleges. Rehman is clear in his response that STEM is part of but not the whole answer and he calls for a balanced approach with a strong emphasis on the teaching of creativity and critical thinking which are described as the essential constructs of STEM but also of the arts and humanities. Rehman calls for greater inclusion of the arts and humanities in STEM education and for this to be a two-way relationship.

There is the potential here for a great error to be made and it is revealed in some of the underlying assumptions that Zakaria bases his assessment on. Teaching in the STEM field can be all about creativity and critical thinking and it often is but there are also the countless classes that have a focus on teaching knowledge for later recall with bland skills taught in isolation and ‘follow the instruction’ experiments where the results are know and the method is carved in stone. The design and make task where every student produces the same dust pan, the mathematics lesson where there is one method to solve the problem are all too familiar and do nothing to promote creativity, critical thinking or innovation. Not that the humanities are excused from such mundane teaching practices. How many students are taught the correct analysis of poetry, the fill in the blanks model of writing or the colour by numbers approach to art lessons where every student produces a near identical piece of art.

The call to arms has been made and it is clear that the future will need a workforce capable of innovation on a new scale with the skills of creativity, critical thinking and imagination at the cornerstone of the new workers skill set. As writer and futurist Alvin Toffler puts it the 'the illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.’ With the role that technology has to play in this future a grounding in STEM is undoubtedly essential but so too is balance and within this balance an emphasis on the 'long life' skills that will allow individuals and groups to put their knowledge, capacities and passions to good use in creating the innovative future we desire.


By Nigel Coutts


Read Part One

Read Part Two