Industry News

STEM’s post-COVID moment

Sabari Raja
January 19, 2021

Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

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The importance of STEM in schools in the last decade has been obvious. Districts have retooled their curricula to boost offerings in engineering and technology and students responded. From 2010 to 2016, there was a 43% increase in undergraduate students studying science, technology, engineering, and math, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

That was the good news. But even with these numbers, there were still 2.4 million positions unfilled in STEM fields in 2018. Schools and students weren’t keeping up with the demand, in part because eight of the top 10 fastest growing jobs are in STEM fields.

But now, as the pandemic stretches into its tenth month and education zig zags between in-person and remote, there’s one inescapable truth: STEM is more important than ever.

First, expect that job growth to continue. STEM occupations are forecast to grow 76% faster than non-STEM job growth nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And students seemed poised to respond. Covid-19 response from healthcare workers and engineers in the UK have prompted 63% of 10-18 year olds to consider a career in medicine and 52% of children to consider a career in engineering after witnessing the agility of engineers in delivering ventilators to critical care hospitals, according to research by the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

While COVID-19 has certainly spotlighted the importance of scientists searching for a vaccine, its influence goes wider. The deadly virus proved that human concerns are not separate from technological concerns and how we adapt, change, and behave to integrate technology to fulfill human needs is going to be at the core of the future of work, especially in STEM, according to Deloitte Insights.

While STEM jobs offer higher wages, COVID has also created awareness that STEM jobs have the flexibility and the resilience to transition and survive (and in some cases even thrive) during economic and health crises. I think there will be a surge among the younger generation to pursue healthcare, web development and computer support as viable career pathways. Many students will prefer jobs that allow for remote work. STEM will play an important role in the changing economy and we have a responsibility to prepare the future workforce for this challenge.

But the impact will be even bigger than these direct examples. The larger point to STEM education has never been only about feeding students into the STEM career pipeline. Offering STEM skills in schools creates students who will have more career flexibility when they hit the workforce. Apart from the core academic knowledge in math and science, successful STEM professionals have critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration as their foundational skills. Having a growth mindset and being able to change and adapt quickly is key to a successful STEM career, but these skills will serve students well no matter what field they work in.

There’s another benefit to STEM learning. In today’s world, it is important for students to understand the value of science and how to discern truth from fiction. It is essential that all students grow into adults who, despite their career endeavors, understand the scientific process and have critical thinking skills that allow them to recognize what is reputable information and what is sensational. We would be in a very different position today if these skills were ingrained in students consistently and from an early age.

Students need to first understand how science has created a better world, improving healthcare and a more sustainable environment. Science is about facts -- it’s not make-believe, and we need to be able to present these facts to students. COVID-19 has given us a unique opportunity to put science in the spotlight and make this a teachable moment, to understand that science doesn’t stand alone, it is connected to the well being of communities, to employment, to transportation, to health, to economic well being, to the safety and security of countries and the food that we consume everyday.

Even with all this good news about STEM and its importance, there is one area that vitally needs to be addressed by educators. Girls are still not as interested in engineering and computer science, which make up more than 50% of the total STEM jobs available. To change this trend, we need to change perceptions, to make the connections between technology and human impact. For example, showing how coding can actually help create software that is used to develop a prosthetic leg will draw girls into subjects they may initially shun.

COVID-19 has reinforced our conviction that human concerns are not separate from technological concerns. To be a successful STEM professional or to build an enterprise that is rooted in this belief, it is urgent and essential for us to develop empathy as a core value among our future generation.

While the pandemic has scrambled the way schools teach and people work, these changes are not likely to be temporary. While it’s impossible to say when life will return to “normal,” I expect some type of blended learning will remain in our schools well after we have resumed in-person education.

Preparing students for the “real world” takes on a whole new meaning in a virtual work environment. We don’t have to only expose students to different careers, but we need to help them understand the different ways they can work and connect with people across the globe.

All this advice is great, but how can schools accomplish what seems like a heavy lift with so many other issues vying for their attention? Project based learning, along with real-world connections, are a great way to emphasize STEM skills in students. When students are working on a project that involves creative thinking, and problem solving, the STEM skills get embedded into their day-to-day learning. When you choose projects that have a social impact, empathy becomes part of how you operate.

We see a lot of educators doing PBL lessons. I suggest you take it one step further and engage an authentic audience by connecting working professionals who are industry experts to the students through the project, first to gain additional knowledge of the topic, then to get project feedback along the way and finally to present their projects to a live panel of industry experts.

One of the best examples we’ve seen are from schools participating in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow challenge. With Nepris’ help, students meet virtually with experts to develop an app to manage student anxiety. They met with a psychologist, a team that tackled water pollution in their community and a scientist working on that same problem. All of these teams learned collaboration and communication, not just amongst their peers, but with community members and industry experts. Today we are seeing many rural schools rise up and create more remote connections and opportunities for students, as they realize that the pandemic is creating more equity of access issues.

Sabari Raja is the co-founder and CEO of Nepris Inc., a cloud-based platform connecting industry and education. She has worked in education technology for 17 years leading product and content strategy, business development, publisher relations, and emerging market growth strategies. She is passionate about working with educators to translate their needs into scalable technology solutions. She plays an active role in furthering STEM education around the country.

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