We know that a STEM education sets students up for success, but can it also help us solve critical global issues?
British chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, who made crucial contributions to the scientific and medical world throughout her career in the 1940s and 50s, believed that “science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”
The insight of this trailblazing scientist feels even more significant today as we look to science to help us solve our planet’s most pressing issues. And the call to action begins in the classroom with a focus on STEM education.
STEM is more than an acronym for four areas of study—science, technology, engineering and math. It includes a diverse set of skills needed for problem-solving and innovation. It fosters creativity, collaboration and out-of-the-box thinking alongside these fundamental disciplines, which altogether encourage youth to be curious learners, ask questions and seek innovative solutions for real-world challenges. STEM subjects focus on providing answers to the concerns society has today, which can help us anticipate and work to solve the problems of tomorrow.
As we move into 2022, posed to be another year of uncertainty and challenge, STEM education—and the knowledge, skills and
values that come with it—is more essential than ever. We need innovative young minds to help us tackle climate change, food security, future pandemics and more.
STEM is a pathway to engage and empower students to take action and make positive change in their schools and communities as well as on a global scale.
Leading the Way
If today’s science is tomorrow’s technology, then today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders.
Take, for example, 14-year-old Shiven Taneja, an aspiring engineer who recently spent his winter break building homemade air purifiers for seniors and small businesses in Mississauga, Ontario, because he wanted to help his community. Then there is 19-year-old Avi Schiffmann, an American university student and web developer who created one of the world’s most popular information hubs tracking COVID-19 cases when he was in high school. Or perhaps you’ve heard of 14-year-old climate activist Sophia Mathur from Sudbury, Ontario, who became the first student outside Europe to join Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement when she was just 11 years-old, lobbying for change to provincial and federal environmental policies. These are just three examples of youth in North America who have leveraged their STEM skills to lead the way in a fight for a fairer and healthier world. How many others out of the 2.2 billion kids on the planet can do the same? They all have the potential. They just need the right education and encouragement. And it can start with the right teacher.
As mathematician, computer scientist, educator and one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, Seymour Papert, says, “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.”
Life Skills to Pay the Bills
So, what are the ideal conditions for invention? A space, whether it be at home or in the classroom, with a teacher that fosters the following:
- Critical thinking and problem solving
- Innovation and creativity
- Collaboration and communication
- Empathy and compassion
- Global citizenship and sustainability
Educators and experts agree that these skills, which differ from traditional academic skills, will best set students up for success in their careers—and in their lives. Because it’s not just about making a living. It’s about making a life.
“An educational system isn’t worth a great deal if it teaches young people how to make a living but doesn’t teach them how to make a life,” says environmental activist David Suzuki. Elementary teacher Stephanie Gaudet from Moosejaw, Saskatchewan would tend to agree. Her main goal as an educator has always been to help her students become autonomous, proud learners with strong life skills.
“They may not need to know that Saskatchewan was created in 1905 but they should know how to get to the answer,” says Gaudet. “They should know how to troubleshoot, problem-solve, find solutions and be proud of what they’re learning—and be proud citizens.” One of the ways she promotes these skills in her students is by incorporating coding and other science learning activities into her lesson plans—activities that encourage creativity, critical thinking and collaboration.
Meghan Polowin, a Grade 8 science teacher in Ottawa, Ontario, is also focused on helping her students find their voice and their place in the world. “It’s really important for kids and teens to be global citizens. For them to know what’s happening and be connected locally, regionally, nationally and globally,” she says. “And they are aware!” Polowin believes in her young students, emphasizing how curious and capable they are. She views her teaching job as an opportunity to empower young people. She does this by listening to them, engaging with them and incorporating real-world issues that matter to them—from gender equality and poverty to clean water and sanitation—into her curriculum.
Listening and engaging are key. Mike Fitzmaurice, a math teacher in the township of Eganville, Ontario, encourages his students to ask questions. And as many of them as possible. “My primary goal is to help students become critical thinkers,” he says. “I want them to ask questions, and then we try to find the answers together. We may not be able to find all the answers, but at least we can try.”
Due to its foundation of inquiry-based learning and problem-solving, STEM subjects encourage students to ask questions and seek answers—sometimes surprising ones. As a result, students are emboldened to imagine the impossible, push boundaries and take risks with their creativity. This type of creative risk-taking is beneficial in just about every field you can think of, and it has absolutely led to some of the most important inventions, solutions and technologies of our time. In its purest form, an awareness and learning of STEM subjects provides youth with the skills they need to grow into active, global citizens prepared to tackle the challenges of our changing world.
Opportunities for All
For teachers, STEM education programs and resources are plenty. In recent years, the Government of Canada and its partners have put many initiatives in place to not only help young Canadians get involved in STEM fields—but also help educators increase their own science literacy skills as well as incorporate STEM subjects into their curriculums through professional development programs and opportunities. And many of them are free of cost. From the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to charitable organizations such as Let’s Talk Science, teachers can access classroom resources, attend webinars, connect with like-minded educators and so much more. The opportunities for professional growth are endless and truly exciting. Much like science itself.
Kendra Brown is a writer and editor at the Ontario Science Centre with over 15 years of experience in the children’s media and publishing industry. She is also the author of Small but Mighty: Why Earth’s Tiny Creatures Matter and a contributing writer on the Let’s Talk Science team.