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STEM Education and the Future of Work

February 24, 2017


The inevitable advance of automation and the maturation of artificial intelligence (AI) have many analysts predicting the human race will be out of work in the decades ahead. I’m more optimistic about the future of work and predict the future will be characterized by human/machine collaboration. Instead of running a race against machines, our children will be running a race with machines. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses can help prepare them for that future. Loela Jones reports, “In the education sector, the K-12 curriculum is being examined to suit the 2025-2030 job requirements. High school students should be introduced already how to administer software coding in their computer classes. It is also encouraged to start incorporating STEM during early childhood schooling or training programs, say NYSci.”[1] In addition to possessing STEM skills, our students need to hone human skills that will make human/machine collaboration an unbeatable combination.


The Importance of STEM Skills


Humans working with machines is nothing new. Historically, machines have been created to help humankind reduce the drudgery of work and improve productivity. What is new is that machines are getting smarter. Many, if not most, of us have daily interaction with computers (or smartphones). As more and more “smart” machines find their way into the workplace, true collaboration is going to be possible with them. This collaboration will entail much more interaction than a human using a “dumb” machine. In order to ensure human/machine collaboration maximizes its potential, our students need to be literate in STEM subjects. And, according to Karen Hardy (@KarenHardyCT), STEM education should begin with preschoolers. “In 2030, when these preschoolers are entering the workforce,” she writes, “the labour market will be very different. Jobs may still have titles we recognise but the skills needed will be complex and varied, for tasks we can only dream about.”[2]


Allison Elliott predicts one area where STEM skills will be desperately needed in the future is in the area of artificial intelligence. “In 2016,” she explains, “major companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft signaled loud and clear where the tech world is headed: Artificial Intelligence. Referred to as AI, tech companies are scrambling to translate it into consumer products and services such as virtual reality and smart home systems, but other industries such as health care, manufacturing, and transportation are also poised for transformation. One of the challenges these companies face, however, is finding qualified talent to work in this in-demand area.”[3] Most of those companies are focusing on human/AI interaction with devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. They are pointing the way to human/machine collaboration in the future. AI, mostly in the form of cognitive computing, will be the foundation of most digital enterprises in the years ahead.


We know AI brings a lot to table, the big question will be: What will humans bring to the table? “In the report The Future of Work: Setting kids up for success,” Hardy writes, “the Regional Australia Institute predicts that high-demand jobs will need a mix of hard specialist knowledge skills, or STEM skills; and soft people skills, such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. ‘To ensure the success of today’s preschoolers in the 2030 job market, we need to invest in our kids now,’ the report reads. ‘The future of work is not a question of how do we develop skills to race against technology, but instead what mix of skills provides the greatest opportunity to race ahead with technology.'”


The Importance of HUMAN Skills


Tom Vander Ark (@tvanderark), CEO of Getting Smart, agrees that today’s students need to hone human skills that complement smart machine skills. He draws on insights from other experts to make his case. For example, he cites Daniel Pink (@DanielPink), author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, who told his children to “to ‘think about what you can do to augment what AI does — work that only humans can do that smart machines cannot.’ That includes: Creativity; dealing with ambiguity, nuance and poorly defined problems; understanding other’s emotions and point of view; developing expertise and sense making; and identifying reliable sources. He sees the skill requirements ‘going up and up’ in all jobs, but particularly sales, where targeting is becoming more sophisticated and relationships are more important than ever.”[4]


Vander Ark also cites renowned physicist and futurist Michio Kaku (@michiokaku). Kaku insists, “The jobs of the future will be what robots can’t do.” Vander Ark reports, [Kaku] sees jobs involving repetitive tasks or repetitive rule application going away. Nonrepetitive blue collar jobs — garbage collection, construction, gardening — will thrive but won’t pay very well. Good paying jobs will ‘engage in intellectual capitalism’ involving creativity, imagination, leadership, analysis, humor, writing and experimentation.” Vander Ark also quotes, Kaggle CEO Anthony Goldbloom (@antgoldbloom), who stated in a Ted talk, “Machines are getting smarter and smarter on high volume tasks. But they are not making progress on novel situations. That’s why humans will continue to create business strategies and copy in marketing campaigns.” Vander Ark reports Goldbloom’s advice to young people is, “Let every day bring you a new challenge.”


Australian broadband provider nbn and the Regional Australia Institute have teamed to promote The Future of Work: Setting Kids Up for Success. The website notes, “The future is uncertain but there is growing evidence that the kids of today will need a mix of skills to be ready for the future of work as predicted in 2030.” The site contains a toolkit students can access from home to help them understand the skills they will need in the future. The site notes, “Everyone is talking about the need for hard and soft skills — but what are they and how can you get them? Hard skills are focused on increasing your technical and digital knowledge — everyone is going to need them, but how much depends on your interest. … Soft skills are focused on improving your ability to work with, and for people.”


Keeping STEM Education Real


One of the best ways for students to develop hard and soft skills simultaneously is to get them involved in project-based programs. That’s why I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness — to help get a project-based, problem-solving approach into schools near where we live. Working in teams on real-world problems that require the application of STEM skills, students are exposed to the value of both hard and soft skills. They learn to become problem solvers and critical thinkers. The Regional Australia Institute report mentioned by Hardy concludes, “The future of work is not a question of how do we develop skills to race against technology, but instead what mix of skills provides the greatest opportunity to race ahead with technology.” I couldn’t agree more.


[1] Loela Jones, “STEM Careers: Vital For The Future Progress in the Economy Worldwide,” University Herald, 29 October 2016.
[2] Karen Hardy, “STEM setting preschoolers up for workforce success in 2030,” The Canberra Times, 28 November 2016.
[3] Allison Elliott, “The Future is Artificial Intelligence,” edX, 5 January 2017.
[4] Tom Vander Ark, “Tell Kids to Get Good at Stuff Smart Machines Can’t Do (Yet),” Getting Smart, 10 January 2017.

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