Education reform continues to be fiercely debated, but one thing is clear: It’s imperative that leaders align K-12 classrooms with the growing demands of the future science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce. What makes this task particularly challenging is that today’s youth will likely face challenges that the adults around them can barely imagine. We’re living in a precarious moment in human history in which some have argued that technology is so disruptive that productivity is outpacing job growth. Preparing the children of today to succeed in a completely different job market is a responsibility we cannot ignore — even though it may feel impossible to keep up with such rapid change.
The Inherent Fluidity Of STEM Careers
Although the government officially recognizes hundreds of STEM degrees, simply choosing to study an existing field will not guarantee a young person a lifetime career. The very nature of STEM is that it’s always evolving as researchers and inventors build on past knowledge to spark innovation. In fact, the pace of change today is likely to affect all sorts of jobs we may think of as stable, from insurance writers and loan officers to seamstresses and referees. School-age children could see roles like tax preparers and library technicians disappear by the time they graduate. Artificial intelligence (AI) and increased automation stand to change the employment landscape dramatically, leading to fewer jobs that involve actual humans in the future.
On the bright side, there are also plenty of attractive STEM careers available today that were unheard of a decade ago. Mobile app developers, big data analysts and driverless car engineers are all up-and-coming roles in fields that only exist because of the endless forward march of human progress. This embodies the fluidity of STEM: As old technologies and related job opportunities fall away, new ones arise in their place.
Recognizing The Potential Of The Future Now
Within their short lifetimes, members of Generation Z have witnessed the rise of new technologies like next-generation batteries, blockchain, the internet of things (IoT), autonomous vehicles and nanosensors, all of which will spark new opportunities and change the job outlook around the world. According to Willis Towers Watson, more than 60% of children attending school today will work in a career that does not currently exist. This will likely result in new positions such as autonomous transportation specialist, human-technology integration expert, excess capacity broker and others we have yet to imagine.
Growing digital connectivity and the accessibility of affordable technology have democratized and redefined STEM careers. For example, social media influencers now play a vital role in today’s modern businesses by creating guerrilla marketing campaigns to promote goods and services. Many are also taking on roles such as in situ data scientist, focusing on analytics often collected using mobile devices and stored in the cloud. Countless jobs have arisen through companies and platforms such as Uber, Shipt and Upwork, which began as STEM experiments but now serve as gateways into the gig economy that may one day rival the size of our current workforce.
Preparing Children For STEM Careers
Preparing students for future careers in STEM as well as for a workplace that emphasizes independence and flexibility is the major task ahead of anyone interested in education today. Though novel vocational opportunities are exciting, facing the changing future of work and preparing students for STEM careers means embracing new pedagogical approaches and developing curriculums that go beyond the basics of what is currently available. The task is two-fold: We must encourage the skills needed to keep up with the rapid changes happening around us while anticipating what the future will hold next.
To do this, it’s crucial to begin STEM learning as early as possible. According to King’s College London, children’s feelings about science and any career aspirations in STEM are formed before age 14 — that is, by the time they are in middle school. Getting children interested in and feeling positive about STEM will go a long way toward raising a generation that’s excited about excelling in these fields.
However, early STEM education must also be developmentally appropriate. For example, preschoolers and early elementary students should be encouraged to play and manipulate materials to develop scientific thinking. Researchers at Johns Hopkins point out that block play helps children develop spatial reasoning skills that are crucial in many STEM fields. STEM toys can be used in ways that encourage inquiry, experimentation and theorizing, which are the founding principles of the scientific method.
As children mature, connecting STEM learning to real-world problems becomes key. Where once they were invested in building the tallest Lego tower, students might now be led to solve problems in school or at home by experimentation and applying ideas they’ve learned about in class. A revolutionary STEM education should focus on hands-on building and problem-solving rather than memorizing textbook material in order to engage students. Older students should also be explicitly encouraged to explore evolving career fields — both those that exist and those that may be available in another decade or two. While many students may enjoy STEM, they won’t consider a career path in it unless they know what’s available to them.
Building A Foundation For STEM Inclusivity
It should also be noted that early, robust STEM education has the power to transform equity in scientific fields. Though STEM education in its current form is not “culturally neutral,” committing to collaborative STEM learning during early childhood education can make high-paying careers in STEM fields available to everyone, regardless of gender, race or country of origin. Starting early means that all children are encouraged to see themselves as scientists capable of solving problems and designing inventions. STEM must be included in the educational standards that all children are expected to meet and no longer seen as something for only the most gifted or mature. When we make this shift, we will lay the foundation for STEM education that prepares all students for whatever the future holds.