As a company, EMC cares a lot about STEM education. At one level, these skills are the "raw fuel" for so many technology-based companies like us.
Personally, I care a lot about STEM education. I am ostensibly a STEM graduate. Two of my three children are now going through STEM programs: one male, one female. It's an expensive proposition, to say the least.
But for many years, I've had this uneasy feeling that the game had changed, or -- at least -- we could be doing it much, much better.
And, after much thought, I've decided to share my personal views about how we could be better preparing our graduates for the coming economy.
A Bit Of Background
The whole topic of STEM education ought to be incredibly important to so many stakeholders.
As parents, we put a lot of effort into preparing our kids to be successful in life. As employers, we care about finding candidates with the skills and perspective we need in our organizations. As global citizens, we want to make sure our substantial societal investments in education serve us well.
Here in the US, there are no shortage of reports that say we're not doing well in producing classically-trained STEM graduates.
Looking more broadly, I despair that there's no generally accepted definition of "STEM literacy" -- a broad working knowledge of STEM concepts that apply to just about any pursuit these days.
And I believe there's an important group of relatively new topics in both approaches to STEM that seem to be under-addressed by the current model.
Might it be time to discuss a re-framing of both the problem, and the solution?
Getting Closer To Home
I was fortunate to be surrounded by good resources and good people: my parents, their co-workers, my teachers, etc.
Part of that was sheer luck: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area (actually, the heart of what came to be known as Silicon Valley). It was sort of expected and encouraged that you'd have a rather techie orientation -- no matter who you were.
My eldest daughter is somewhat like me, only it's in a different context now. Her STEM educational experience was nothing like mine. My middle son is about to enter a university, pursuing an engineering curriculum. I am already cringing around some of the difficulties he's likely to experience.
I socialize with friends and co-workers who are, like me, trying to help their kids be successful in this new world. They share many of my frustrations. These are genuinely smart kids from good families who either choose not to pursue a STEM agenda, or try earnestly for a while before getting weeded out one way or another.
Do we blame them, or the system that is not serving their needs?
Fundamental Assumptions, Fundamental Shifts?
I've always believed things are the way they are for a reason. Understand the historical reasons, you'll better understand what needs to change in a new context.
And my growing frustrations with STEM education are no exception. So, let's take an informal tour of a half-dozen embedded assumptions that might be up for debate in this new world.
Deep Expertise Vs. Broad Competency
At the university level, so many STEM programs are designed to graduate specialized practitioners who are very deep in one discipline or another.
Make no mistake, we still need that deep expertise, but there's a growing need for generalists as well: people who understand the core concepts in a half-dozen or more disciplines, and how they interact with real-world issues.
Where is the STEM analog for the esteemed Liberal Arts education of yesteryear?
At one time, we thought it important that our college graduates had a broad appreciation for the very best of mankinds' rich intellectual tradition. We went to English Literature classes, but we had no pretenses of making a career at writing great novels. We went to political science classes, but had no aspirations to be a politician.
There was discernible value to be had by simply investing in breadth vs. depth.
Sadly, there is no such well-accepted credential for our mythical STEM generalist. Yes, there are "intro" courses for those not on a focused career path, but that's about it. We do not graduate STEM generalists, and that's a growing problem.
If you've been involved in STEM education (especially at higher levels), you'll be very familiar with the "weed out" courses that are incredibly effective at turning large classes into much smaller ones. It seems to be assumed that anyone with more than a casual interest in a particular discipline wants to make a career on being an expert.
In our business, we need people who have a broad understanding of how technology works, how the scientific method works, how math and statistics work, how engineering gets done, how marketplaces function, psychology, etc. etc. The more topics, the better.
We'll always need deep expertise, but we also need very broad generalists as well.
And we can't find enough of them.
Knowing A Subject And Teaching A Subject Are Two Very Different Skills
I've always been intellectually fascinated with STEM topics, as are many of you. I also have realized that there's a unique skill in making STEM content interesting and engaging.
STEM education quickly becomes unpleasant as a result, and many students go elsewhere to find topics that are more approachable and more interesting.
Conversely, we've probably all experienced the magic that a skilled and talented educator can bring to even the most lifeless topics.
One of the more exciting developments in this arena is the breaking down of the traditional educational oligopoly. Thanks to the internet, a thriving marketplace is emerging for people with the unique skill to make STEM topics more interesting and more engaging. The story of Sal Kahn is one of many; more indicative would be folks like Joe Hanson who want to make STEM literacy "cool".
Printed Books Are Not Our Friends
We've raised an entire generation of knowledge workers who grew up interacting with computers, and not blankly staring at a television much like my generation was raised. They expect and demand rich, interactive and immersive experiences, and STEM education is no exception.
No joke: my kids get serious backaches from lugging around these massive printed textbooks. I crack them open, and they suffer the familiar limitations of the printed page -- they just sit there, and don't interact with you.
Here's the missed opportunity: so much in STEM is inherently lively, interactive, moving, visual, etc. Presenting concepts in this manner keeps students engaged and intellectually stimulated. They learn the same way they've always learned -- by experiencing things directly.
Yes, there will always be room for the massive and authoritative textbook, but the new focus has to be on interactive content. One powerful example is Apple's new textbook authoring tools -- not only democratizing content creation and consumption, but fully embracing the interaction model we've all come to expect.
It can't come soon enough, in my opinion.
Big Data Analytics Can Provide The Insight
One of my most fascinating conversations ever was with a data scientist who studied educational outcomes. It's one thing to argue passionately that one approach or another is "better", it's another thing entirely to have verifiable predictive models that back up your assertions.
The insights he brought to the table weren't all that revolutionary once you think about it. People learn in very distinct and well-defined ways. Real-time assessment allows real-time adjustments to learning approach. The role (and expertise!) of the educator is an impactful (and controllable) variable in the equation.
All of this potentially enabled by educational "clouds" that create a global marketplace in content -- and educators.
Put differently, why aren't we using STEM concepts to radically improve the state of STEM education?
I look at the new offerings from learning institutions such as MIT, and I see a clear glimpse of the future of STEM education.
New Skills, Even For The Specialists
I am also beginning to believe that there are significant gaps in even traditional STEM education that's oriented to producing experts vs. generalists.
Case in point: right now, there's incredible demand for data scientists. To the best of my knowledge, there are no universities who are graduating card-carrying data scientists. They seem to get proficient at it despite the educational system, and not because of it. Just like it'd be hard to imagine any STEM expert who couldn't use a computer, it's becoming hard for me to imagine most any STEM graduate who doesn't have at least a minimal proficiency in data science.
Another case in point: online collaboration skills. While there are clear exceptions, most people drawn to STEM aren't usually the most social and collaborative types in the physical world. I know, I'm one of them. But put us online, and we can be completely different animals. We share, we contribute, we learn -- often much more effectively than in physical settings.
Where do you learn how to collaborate effectively with an online community? I don't know.
A final point to consider: so much of what STEM strives to achieve can make us somewhat uncomfortable from an ethical and societal perspective. Where do STEM practitioners learn to understand the current societal perspective and boundaries of their endeavors, and navigate accordingly? I don't know the answer to that one either.
But I know that all of the above is important today, and only getting more important in the future.
It's All About Applying What You Know
I clearly remember writing final papers in some of my less-scientific courses, e.g. psychology, English Lit, economics, linguistics, etc. As long as I did a decent job of stating and supporting my thesis, I did well.
By comparison, many STEM exams demand the ultimate in precision: one or two wrong computational answers at the outset, and you're doomed. That may be justified when our intent is to graduate deep expertise, but I'd argue that the mission has expanded.
If we're looking for a new generation of STEM generalists, perhaps it would be worthwhile to take a page from our liberal arts counterparts? Show us what you know, show how you would go about using broad chunks of conceptual knowledge to go about solving a problem or challenge, show us how you'd be creative and inventive.
Definitely not on the agenda for a Differential Equations final, or Organic Chemistry.
As an employer, I can usually find deep expertise (or extreme precision) when I think I need it. If not inside the company, than certainly outside. What is hard to find are smart, intellectually curious people who are comfortable moving from discipline to discipline, wielding a wide array of powerful conceptual tools to tackle newer challenges for which there is no textbook answer.
Charting The Road Ahead
If you agree with even a small fraction of the thoughts above, there are some clear policy implications. Some are already happening organically, some will take a bit of initiative.
There will be the predictable resistance from the entrenched, legacy players, but it won't last very long. I feel relatively good about that, at least in the medium term.
What I don't feel as sanguine about is the relationship between the education community and the employment community. They produce, we consume. I believe that we -- as employers -- have been collectively inarticulate around the new skills and perspectives we'll need in our workforces in the next ten years. And when we do express an interest, it's usually in the form of deep and narrow expertise vs. broad generalists.
I think there's an entirely new level we need to reach regarding openness and transparency -- what educational approaches produce desired outcomes, and which ones don't. It all seems to be somewhat shrouded from those of us who are investing heavily in ourselves and our offspring.
When I make a financial investment, I have a great deal of information at my fingertips to guide my decision. Far less useful information is available when I'm making an educational investment.
Although there's a few entrepreneurial tools out there :)
The Big Thought
Technology adoption usually has two distinct phases. In the first phase, we use technology to incrementally improve what we've always done -- the fundamental model doesn't change, but it runs better, faster, cheaper thanks to technology.
The first pitch for an automobile was "a better horse", for example.
The second phase occurs when we step back and completely re-envision what is achievable in light of the tools at hand.
We re-think the mission, the model and how we measure the outcome.
And, for me, we're clearly on that precipice when it comes to STEM education.