In a society where the Internet of Things is gradually becoming a reality, where data is one of the most precious assets and where borders of any kind are no longer barriers, skills and competencies such as computational thinking, the ability to make sense of huge volumes of data and devising novel and creative solutions play a huge role.
The educational system must create an environment where these skills are promoted and emphasised. When society and its challenges change, education needs to respond to effectively prepare the next generation.
As a result, lecturers, teachers and educators across the UK are increasingly looking towards employers themselves to provide the guidance and support that will help to create STEM employees of the future.
Against tough competition, potential graduates in the STEM industries are being asked to demonstrate that they are able to perform at the forefront of an ever-changing industry and are able to provide the dynamism and flexibility that the job demands.
It is no longer sufficient for people working in the STEM industry to possess an advanced technical ability. Increasingly these professions require a broad set of skills that go well beyond a theoretical understanding.
Graduates need to demonstrate that they have experience and skills in a broad set of areas that includes management, teamwork, design, testing and research, as well as experience of the tools used in industry.
A 2013 study by MathWorks revealed that universities and businesses believed that this skills gap can be narrowed through greater collaboration between academia and industry.
The MathWorks STEM Skills Gap Report also revealed over half of employers and almost two-thirds of academics thought that industry does not currently work closely enough with universities.
Further to this, 63% of businesses surveyed would like industry to have more of a say in the STEM curriculum, as well as making a greater investment in the long term.
In addition, 74% of respondents agreed that they saw the value of project-based learning at secondary school, which invites students to investigate science and real-world engineering problems ‘hands-on’.
This approach not only encourages students to ask ‘Why?’, ‘How?’ and ‘What if…?’, but also helps develop the transferrable skills such as critical thinking and problem solving which are now being demanded by potential employers.
The education system of the future will have hands-on projects built into the backbone of the curriculum from day one. In fact, project-based learning should be something that students experience from primary school right through to university.
Projects designed for students, such as Formula Student, the leading and most established educational motorsport competition in Europe, allow competitors to work on an industry scale project and develop the skills that employers demand from their graduate intake in an interesting and engaging environment.
Through partnerships with events similar to Formula Student, businesses are able to offer support, either through technical expertise or access to industry standard systems and tools, to prepare graduates for a career in STEM.
We will see similar projects being undertaken more regularly in the university of the future through increased collaboration with businesses in order to provide ongoing support and guidance to students as well as teachers.
This is already happening at an early age in some education environments with companies such as MathWorks supporting Maths-based projects for primary school children; for example the ‘Go Ballistic’ project.
This collaboration with Cambridge Science Centre sees primary school pupils developing their understanding of projectiles as they calculate and predict where to place a net to catch a cannon ball.
The students create predictive models based on a series of measurements using an app developed with MATLAB. This project also promotes team work and a deeper understanding of measurement, predictions and problem solving.
These projects offer a range of skill development opportunities that go beyond a simple understanding of the problem and will grow in popularity across classrooms, schools and campuses as employers continue to demand a combination of practical skills in addition to theoretical understanding from future employees.
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Low cost hardware, for example Arduino and Raspberry Pi, has meant that technology is already available that helps teachers to provide hands-on, real world projects in the classroom from a young age.
As we see hardware become more affordable and the applications broaden, we’ll see these tools increasingly used in the learning spaces of the future and deployed throughout the academic process; from primary education through to university.
We’ve reached an exciting time for the future of STEM education in universities and are already seeing the potential that dramatic changes in curriculum design and teaching methods can have on future STEM graduates.
Through new technology, greater collaboration with business and a greater awareness of the skills that are required during a career in STEM, the universities of the future will help to create the STEM stars of tomorrow.