As a Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) professional, working in and around engineering, technology and manufacturing organisations for well over a decade, I often hear about the need for more STEM educated people if we’re going to flourish as a nation in the future.

This is no surprise, as the jobs of the future are forecast to be STEM-heavy, with Microsoft suggesting in its Building Australia’s future-ready workforce report that these jobs will be in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), cyber security, the Internet of Things (IoT), augmented reality and the list goes on.

Where I could not disagree that the shortfall in STEM graduates in Australia has been overstated in years gone by, I do believe the need for STEM skills in the future will become insatiable.

McKinsey forecasts that 15-30% of all current work could be displaced by automation by 2030.

Global management consultancy firm McKinsey forecasts that 15-30% of all current work could be displaced by automation by 2030. If this is true, this could mean that up to 3.2 million Australian jobs will be displaced in just over a decade. If you don’t believe those numbers, the Committee of Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) has suggested that this number could be as high as 5 million.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s clear – technology, and the STEM skills required to advance technology, are going to play a big part in our future.

STEM enrolments in Australia at a 20-year low

In 2017, the Chief Scientist of Australia reported that enrolments in STEM subjects in Australian schools is at a 20-year low. Unfortunately, it’s too easy to ignore this as we’re unlikely to feel the impact of these record low enrolments for a decade or more.

Forecasts on the jobs of the future aside, we’re also about to undertake the nation’s largest ever defence procurement endeavour. The Federal Government will invest $200 billion in STEM-hungry defence programs over the next decade alone and some of these programs can be expected to consume these skills for up to 50 years.

The STEM-hungry BAE Systems Type 26 Global Combat Ship – 9 of which will be built in Adelaide, South Australia under the $35bn SEA 5000 program (image credit BAE Systems Australia)

So, the question is – how can we get more Australian students interested in developing their STEM skills in school to increase their likelihood of taking part in Australia’s future workforce?

STEAM to put STEM enrolments back on track

I believe the answer lies in putting the arts or the ‘A’ in STEM, creating what is known today as STEAM. STEAM integrates the arts into a STEM curriculum so that students can learn STEM skills in a fun, “learn by doing” way.

STEAM allows governments, educators and industry to promote STEM to a wider audience. Using a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach, it entices students’ inquisitive minds with the opportunity for play and lowers the barriers to entry.

STEAM-based programs such as the Re-Engineering Australia Foundation (REA) F1 in Schools program and the Advanced Technology Project (ATP) in South Australia (also known as the School Pathways program outside of South Australia) incorporate aspects of design, creativity and teamwork (the skills industry desperately need!) and the results speak for themselves – REA has found that 76% of teachers surveyed from over 200 Australian schools believe that REA’s programs have increased the adoption of STEM studies in their schools.

An F1 in Schools team works together to solve a STEM problem (image credit REA)

Overcoming the STEM stigma

Research by The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in the UK has found that it is often parents who unintentionally put their kids off from taking up STEM subjects because they believe “STEM is too hard”. STEAM can help overcome this stigma.

Where promoting STEM and the hard sciences alone can alienate a huge proportion of the available talent pool, art is different. Everyone can have a go at art. Although few of us can ‘do’ art well, there aren’t too many of us that haven’t been willing to have a go, as we rarely perceive art as being ‘too difficult’.

Improving diversity in STEM

STEAM has the potential to improve the diversity of talent that we see in STEM-rich curriculums. Take the minority group of women for example, where in 2016 only 16% of STEM qualified Australians were women, and only 7% of those were engineers.

The arts and PBL approaches often resonate better with females than do traditional STEM curriculums, and thus by promoting STEAM in schools there is a huge opportunity to significantly improve the uptake of STEM-rich curriculums by this minority group, both improving diversity in STEM and overall student enrolments.

STEAM better able to prepare students for the future

In a world that is becoming inevitably more complex, one where the problems are becoming increasingly more integrated and difficult to solve, hard sciences alone and the linear-thinking often associated with these sciences, just won’t cut it.

STEAM has the potential to produce more well-rounded graduates, those that can look at problems from multiple perspectives.

STEAM encourages a better balance between left-brain (the side of the brain responsible for logic, facts and linear-thinking) and right-brain (the side of the brain responsible for intuition, imagination and creativity) thinking, which ultimately leads to more holistic thinking and better outcomes.

With STEAM, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

Some of the greatest STEM leaders of our time, think Steve Jobs (iPhone) and Marissa Mayer (Yahoo!), all understood the importance of art in their work.

We must not forget that it is art that has given us the language we use to communicate our ideas each day, the ability to work in a team and the ability to show empathy towards our colleagues and customers.

Unlike the mathematical, logic-based problems that we will face in the future, it is our soft skills that automation won’t be able to gobble up quite so easily by 2030. These are the skills that make us uniquely human, and these are the skills that will become ever more important as we learn to collaborate with machines and robotics in a seamless way in the future.

Full STEAM ahead

If we’re serious about putting STEM enrolments back on track in this country, we must consider offering STEAM in our schools as a viable alternative to the traditional STEM curriculum.

It is future generations of STEAM graduates that will allow Australia to partake in a future dominated by automation, and it is these same graduates who will ultimately drive our country’s economic prosperity into the future.

Isn’t it time we switched to STEAM?

Have you had an experience with STEAM? If so, how was it? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this as well as on STEM vs STEAM in the comments section below.

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