Tuesday, February 24, 2015

STEM Education Underpins Our Prosperity

Dr Nicholas Gruen, CEO of Lateral Economics writes "STEM: part culture war, part cargo cult" (Online Opinion, 17 February 2015). STEM is short for "Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths" and as Dr Gruen points out there are numerous calls for more of it in schools and universities. But I suggest there are good reasons for this, and don't agree it is a "cargo cult" (I could hardly do that when I teach Computer Science and Net Technology). Australia's economic wellbeing and much of its society, depends on STEM. Our agricultural and mining sectors depend on science and engineering. The systems in our cities which keep the citizens fed and healthy also depend on science and engineering. Our fourth biggest export industry is education, which is  dependent on technology and scientific research.

Dr Gruen claims that "old-fashioned entrepreneurialism" has been the dominant input to the success of Silicon Valley. This is not quite true, as what has emerged is a sophisticated blending of STEM and entrepreneurialism. Computer coding is not the only contribution of STEM to Silicon Valley, there is also engineering of hardware, product design and sophisticated project management approaches which make large and complex projects possible.

There are practitioners who've taught themselves, but they are making use of billions of dollars of government investment in STEM, which is a legacy of the cold war and the space program. Even now the US government and US military fund research which enterprises can then commercially exploit.

As Dr Gruen points out, there are free resources online. But there is little future for a country which relies on the education offered free by the government and companies of another.

Australia can hope that a few crumbs from the US entrepreneurial table will fall on the floor for us, or we can invest in our own future. One way to do this is to teach entrepreneurial skills to STEM students. I am helping do this trough the Australian Computer Society. My class of "New Technology Alignment" students are up to week three of their on-line course. They first have to find a business opportunity and then propose technology for that opportunity. Those working in an organization have the opportunity to do their project, for their boss, in the workplace. At the Australian National University I am helping with TechLauncher where students have to option to set up a new company as part of their for-credit project. I will be discussing how to teach innovation, at CSIRO in Canberra, 27 April 2015.

We do need STEM in-service training for existing teachers. This can be on-line, but needs to be more than just telling them to go a look at a web video. What is required is properly designed on-line education programs for teachers and for stud nets. Australia has had such programs, particularly for rural and remote students. Those programs could be broadened for all students..

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