As I was lucky enough to attend the Science and Innovation in Education Forum last week I thought I might report back on the sorts of things that were said and my own particular take on them. Ostensibly the forum was set up to discuss:
- The role of STEM education in generating innovation.
- What employers want of employees.
- What support and changes are required to promote a science-based economy.
(STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Although that rapidly devolved as the various sections overlapped. What emerged was a clear idea of the problems, some excellent (but very general) solutions and a few concrete recommendations. The problems that really stood out as central discussion points were:
- Low rate of transformation of ideas & research into businesses
- Low levels of Maori and Pacific success in academia
- Low Engineering graduate numbers
- STEM is hard
- Communities (parents, teachers friends) are ill-informed of career pathways
- Loss of the best students overseas
- Low engagement of students in science and math at secondary school
- Skills student lack
- Societal perceptions of a career in science
bearing in mind that these were just what were discussed, and their presence (or lack thereof) has no bearing on their factuality. The ‘solutions’ proposed where largely what you would expect from heads of the industries involved, with virtually all speakers suggesting that more money or at least more responsible government spending and policies would solve everything, ignoring the small but important fact that the reason many of the above are issues is because of a lack of financial resources.
I was however, impressed by the calibre of the responses given to the question of ‘What Employers Want?” by people like Phil O’Reilly(Business NZ), Chris Kelly (Landcorp) and Richard Blaikie (MacDiarmid Institute), all of whom replied with the obvious: informed, active citizens that are self-motivated, inquisitive and that can work in a team. There were some suggestions on how to best encourage these traits including: celebrating ‘strategic’ science, STEM skills development, entrepreneurship training, ‘increased’ work opportunities and ‘clearer’ education pathways (but the use of comparatives like ‘clearer’ gives no clear endpoint or goal to this, which personally I think makes it unlikely to produce a concrete outcome). Chris Kelly’s request for more genetics, biotechnology and software design graduates for the agricultural industry was delightfully clear and concrete however.
STEM education’s role in producing innovation was never made explicit although several solutions were proposed (to what I have no idea!). These centered around increasing the number of STEM graduates (citing wonderful examples like Finland and Denmark who are apparently direct facsimiles of a more prosperous New Zealand), promoting entrepreneurship though more interaction with industry, reducing commercialization disincentives and changing our ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ culture. One speaker mentioned that ‘real’ innovation is all about the genesis of new ideas rather than the refinement of others, which I guess must be why Google and Apple are doing so incredibly badly these days. The sharing of IP (based on MIT’s success via this mechanism) was clear recommendation from many speakers though.
Finally, support for a science based economy was going to be a difficult topic regardless of the speakers and audience, and many did a reasonable job of noting the big barriers like perception of science as a career, the lack of ‘heroes’ to aspire to in this field (excepting Sir Paul Callaghan of course), the funding and a general misunderstanding of science’s role in the economy. To expand a bit upon that first point, here’s Patrick Walsh’s list of ‘perceptions of a career in science from secondary school students’:
- Poor pay
- Limited opportunities
- Forced into work overseas
- Constant struggle for funding
- Little social status
- Limited to medicine and engineering
which, I must admit, sounds at least partially correct to me – the kids seem better informed than we first thought!
That said, the two standout speakers (in my humble opinion of course!), Jacqueline Rowarth (Massey University) and Graham Le Gros (Malaghan Institute), provided some excellent, concrete suggestions for people to take on board. Prof. Rowarth noted that children value their time, they don’t enjoy failure and that science is hard, so the only way to encourage students is to increase the prospective reward (salary, status, variety or security). Prof. Le Gros gave clear advice on how to retain good students (which was reiterated by Prof. Blaikie) by promoting the Post Doc as a temporary ‘transfer’ position, but encouraging students to complete PhDs here, specifically by improving the self-confidence of students, possibly extending (or making more flexible) the length of a PhD to allow greater industry links through work experience and by publicizing the non-academic opportunities open to PhD graduates, and promoting the world class science where NZ leads the world.
So….where will all this lead? Well as I mentioned in my last post – I guess thats up to us. We have been given some excellent and some (quite frankly) awful suggestions, but the only thing that will separate one from the other is trying them. I would appreciate further thoughts and discussion however! As Dr. Seuss said:
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – The Lorax
Next post = what I’ll be doing to address these concerns (small world, concrete, immediate things!)