The end of STEM

By Phil O'Reilly, August 2017

In countries throughout the OECD and beyond, education funders, policy makers and business communities have been calling for young people to gain more knowledge across science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). There is similar emphasis in New Zealand too.

This is nothing new. In a world where digital dominates and where business competition is global - and online - it makes sense that we need more science and technology knowledge.

And yet, some say the best employees are well rounded and that can't be achieved just through studying STEM subjects alone. Indeed, some arts advocates are arguing not for STEM but for STEAM, science, technology, engineering, maths with the addition of arts.

It is a valid point, but in any education system choices have to be made.  If we focus on STEAM then essentially we are focusing on everything and therefore nothing. But this isn't about STEM vs Arts. It is about teaching our children to think as New Zealanders with the right STEM knowledge that will equip them for life.

There is another related discussion taking place around whether our concentration on increasing STEM skills is needed to quite the same extent it once was.

The future workplace will still need people with STEM skills but many of our traditional educational pathways to those skills may change. Engineers, for example, currently study for years as under and post graduates. They then go through formal certification and  qualification processes. In the future their training might look quite different.

It may be that the future engineer requires less qualifications and less skills as their work may well be augmented by artificial intelligence, virtual reality and machine learning.

So, is this the end of STEM? Not at all. The developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning won't come about unless we teach STEM skills. Also, New Zealand is so far behind the rest of the world, in particular Asia and much of Europe, in this area that we need to invest more time, effort and money for us just to catch up, let alone get ahead.

STEM skills will also remain important as some skills, technology and engineering, are essential translating skills between pure science, business and public policy.

Interestingly, OECD research suggests that only about 9 per cent of all jobs will be destroyed through automation and new technology in the next several decades. More concerning, the research also shows that low-skilled employees will not have sufficient skills to work effectively in the future world of work - even when their jobs simply change rather than disappear.

This suggests that New Zealand should focus on the following:

  • Making sure that STEM skills in schools are taught sufficiently to enable students to understand fundamental digital concepts. Students will need good, broad knowledge of how and why digital works. They will need to become digital natives regardless of what work path and level they choose. This means moving away from teaching specialist skills, such as computer programming. And instead, teaching STEM skills as the basic building blocks necessary for students to undertake any type of training after leaving school. Digital will alter the future of work but the basics of physics, maths, biology and engineering will never change. They are, after all, the laws of nature.
  • Changing the way we teach STEM skills at our polytechnics and universities. In many areas, this hasn't changed much for decades. Yet, the future of work will likely be far less traditional.  New technologies will make some skills pathways redundant, and many tertiary students will likely need more instruction on how they can employ AI/Big Data, artificial intelligence and machine learning in their chosen profession, even if it has little to do with digital.
  • Thinking about how we teach and learn STEM skills at the highest level of our workforce. It will be difficult for some of our top occupations to alter their traditional, structured approach to training. However, they do need to consider how traditional training techniques will affect future global competitiveness. Take Africa, for example.

Africa does not have a history of traditional training and will potentially out compete us simply because they will more likely train their professionals in non traditional ways, with much more 'just in time' skilling. For them, this is a much more cost effective and fit-for-purpose way of doing things.

So, it's a case of more relevant training in the compulsory system and more consideration of fit-for-purpose training in the tertiary sector. It's also about taking best advantage of new technologies, while ensuring we don't overinvest in an approach to education that may potentially make us less competitive. Importantly, we need to make sure that everything we do in the education system, both in the compulsory and post compulsory sectors, takes account of the changing needs of the future of work.

We need to make sure we are building whole people who understand their role in the world and what it means to be a Kiwi. And this is where the arts come in. New Zealanders have a good understanding of themselves and those around them. And, it is these skills - emotional intelligence, geographic and historical awareness - that are best taught through arts-style subjects, but not solely there.